Last October, the Smithsonian Institute opened the “Hide/Seek” exhibit, which, as the Washington Post’s Blake Gopnik writes, “surveys how same-sex love has been portrayed in art, from Walt Whitman’s hints to open declarations in the era of AIDS and Robert Mapplethorpe’s bullwhips.” Gopnik praised the show hugely, calling it “courageous, as well as being full of wonderful art.”
The exhibit seemed destined for an uncontroversial run until CNS News threw conservatives red-meat and called “Hide/Seek” a “Christmas Season exhibit.” News that the exhibit included David Wojnarowicz’s thirty-minute video “A Fire in My Belly,”which contains an 11-second image of ants crawling on a crucifix, lit a fire in the bellies of conservative American Christians, who put “ants,” “crucifix” and “Christmas” into their interior search engines and linked up to “fury.”
To be fair to them, if they seem hyper-vigilant about discerning insults toward Christmas, it is only because the forces of political correctness have often gone to absurd lengths to denude the season of meaning, and excise it from the public square. In the bizarro-world of progressive thought, even if ninety percent of Americans celebrate some aspect of Christmas, the sensibilities of the ten percent who do not observe it must be protected from all of those tidings of comfort and joy.
“Hide/Seek” was neither a Christmas insult, nor—The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue aside—“hate speech.” Wojnarowicz’s video was produced in 1987, when Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” debuted and artists bereft of new ideas suddenly realized that they could make their “edgy” bona fides by nailing a Crucifix to a bottle of hair conditioner or a soccer ball and assigning a facile title to it. The resulting “De-tangle Christ!” and “Bounce Christ!” would doubtlessly set the art-world gentry to swooning in adulation.
In the case of “Hide/Seek,” however, rather than defend the work against the charge of being “hate speech,” the Smithsonian put a finger to the wind, correctly assessed a perfect storm of “angry taxpayers/scared politicians,” and pulled “A Fire in My Belly” from the exhibit. Gopnik went into a somewhat justified rant: art is speech, and even arcane or pretentious speech deserves protection from those who do not like it or cannot understand it.
If he can tolerate Norman Rockwell, he claims, others can tolerate “Hide/Seek.”
I can’t stand the view of America that [Norman Rockwell] presents, which I feel insults a huge number of us non-mainstream folks. But I didn’t call for the Smithsonian [to pull the Rockwell show] . . . [H]is admirers got to have their say, and his detractors, including me, got to rant about how much they hated his art. Censorship would have prevented that discussion, and that’s why we don’t allow it.
Gopnik really does hate Rockwell’s art, too. He goes after it with a lot of scare quotes, and jeers at the “hard work” of realist painting, which apparently is less arduous than laying a crucifix on the ground and opening an ant farm upon it. His real wrath, however, is reserved for the content of Rockwell’s painting:
Rockwell’s vision of “Freedom of Speech,” . . . doesn’t invoke a communist printing his pamphlets or an atheist on a soapbox. It gives us a town hall meeting of almost interchangeable New Englanders, no doubt agreeing to disagree about something as divisive as the rates for those new parking meters. For this, the Founders risked powder and ball?
Well, actually, Mr. Gopnik, yes. The truth is, the freedom of a small-town man—one so unremarkable as to be “interchangeable” with any other—to stand up amongst his neighbors and air his thoughts without fear of reprisal is precisely what the Founders risked everything for. They lived not in a world of expansive travel and myriad, largely-anonymous media, but in places where people knew each other for all of their lives, and interacted with each other every day.
The Founders understood that it was a singular and authentic act of bravery for a man or woman to stand amid such neighbors and opine against the conventional wisdom or the zeitgeist. They understood that the ability and willingness of one mainstream, rather conventional person to stand against a tide is as edgy as it gets; it is a demonstration of individual courage that extrapolates outward; it is the foundation that supports the freedom of the “communist printing his pamphlets or an atheist on a soapbox,” paintings of which, by 21st century trends, would—ironically—be considered less courageous or unusual than Rockwell’s vision.
Depictions of atheists, communists, or exploitated Crucifixes are risk-free ventures. There will always be a Gopnik ready to call such depictions “smart” and an insecure, media-cue’d gentry ready to embrace them for social cachet, and a publicly funded art establishment eager to fund them. There will always be a career to be made.
Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech” shows us a working-class man standing amid his neighbors. By the tilt of his gaze we know he is speaking to someone elevated, perhaps seated at a bench or dais—someone in authority. There are no nightsticks in sight, as there would have been and would be today in too many places in the world. There is no commissar, monitoring his comments, demanding either his acquiescence or his silence. There are only people, not all agreeing, yet giving a man his say. Somewhere behind him is, undoubtedly, a reporter from the local newspaper, a young Gopnik, free to write whatever he wants.
You’d think Gopnik would champion the painting, puckishly suggesting that the free-speaking common man may be defending “Hide/Seek” and an artist’s right to express himself, even offensively, or stupidly. But he is both either too narrow-minded or too humorless to go there.
Rockwell's paintings, writes Gopnik, “fail to grasp is that the special, courageous greatness of the nation lies in its definitive refusal of any single ‘American way.’” I suspect most Americans believe that art should not be censored, and agree with him that people should be permitted to view an artist’s work and take it or leave it, whereby everyone has had his say. Just like the common man in Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech,” who is demonstrating—though with no credit from Blake Gopnik—the most singular of American ways, indeed.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer of First Things. She blogs at The Anchoress. Her previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.