IN OCTOBER 2010, the Smithsonian Institution corrected a decades-long oversight by staging the first major museum exhibition focused on GLBT American figurative art. Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, at the National Portrait Gallery, met with critical acclaim and enthusiastic attendance—as well as an explosive controversy worthy of the “culture wars” of the late 1980’s. When reactionary forces demanded the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video “A Fire in My Belly”—and when the demand was met—many people were reminded of the controversy around a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective in 1989 and the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s decision to cancel the exhibit. Both Mapplethorpe and Wojnarowicz were from New York, both focused their work in part on homoerotic imagery, and both eventually died of AIDS-related complications. And both controversies occurred in a Washington arts institution that succumbed to right-wing political pressure, notably from Republican politicians.
Despite the unpleasant sense of déjà vu, there were some significant differences between 1989 and the current controversy. Yet the curators, art fans, and activists were left wondering if D.C.’s pre-eminent cultural institution and Congress had forgotten the fallout from the Mapplethorpe affair.