Let me make one thing absolutely clear. I have not written a review of “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Nor do I intend to. So while David Ward and Jonathan Katz may welcome “attacks” on their exhibition, they cannot count me among the attackers. I was sent a catalogue of “Hide/Seek” by the National Portrait Gallery around the time the show opened, long before the right wing had gotten into the act, and the ideas in the catalogue struck me as tired stuff: I’m amazed that Ward and Katz imagine they’re “add[ing] a long ignored—not to say censored—dimension to the museum world’s presentation of American art.” Do they really think that Marsden Hartley’s homosexuality is a new subject? Or Charles Demuth’s? Ward and Katz may very well be the first curators to link this particular group of artists, ranging from Thomas Eakins in the nineteenth century to Glenn Ligon today. But I can think of many reasons why other curators have chosen not to make such connections, and they do not necessarily have to do with censorship.
Why Ward and Katz welcome attackers, I can’t say. It seems a strange thing to wish for, if you have organized an exhibition that you believe in. All I can think is that they are hungry for publicity. In any event, I have not attacked their show. I have made some critical observations about the controversy that erupted around David Wojnarowicz’s video, but that is different. Ward and Katz say that I “prissily avoid the messiness of lived history.” For Ward and Katz, living in the messiness of history apparently means not knowing where their exhibition ends and the controversy about their exhibition begins, but that is their problem, not mine. It’s pathetic that Ward and Katz view the right wing’s “hysterical attacks” on their exhibition as proof of the “correctness” of their “approach.” Are they saying that the critics they most value are Bill Donohue and Eric Cantor? Do I hear a “Bring it on!” bravado in Ward and Katz’s response to their right-wing attackers? Do they find controversy cathartic? If so, I cannot share their feelings.
Why is it that Ward and Katz are only responding now, when it was a month ago, on December 8, that I addressed at some length the controversy around the removal from the exhibition of a clip from Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly? True, I said a few more words last week. But it may also be that as the weeks have worn on, and the adrenaline rush that comes with a controversy inevitably gives way to more complex considerations, my observation that there is some “crudity” on both sides of the debate cannot now be so easily dismissed. In fact, Ward and Katz’s new tactic is a classic one: they will quite simply not permit me to stand where I am, which is neither with their attackers nor with their supporters. They insist on forcing me into a position that is not my own. They say that I have “added” my name to the right wing’s “hysterical attacks.” How can they square that ludicrous charge with my description of “the disgusting tactical hi-jinks of Catholic conservatives and Republican members of Congress?” Or with my description of “a flagrantly opportunistic right-wing attack?” The simple truth is that Ward and Katz cannot forgive me for offering a different view of this controversy. Instead of addressing what I have actually written, they engage in character assassination. If my writing were as incoherent as they say, I doubt they would have felt it necessitated a response.
What I suggested on December 8 was that a more forceful defense of arts institutions depends on a clear understanding of what art is—and what it can and cannot do. Although there is much to be said for the image of the artist as outsider (an image that Ward and Katz clearly find appealing), I do see a danger in what I described as a tendency to “regard nearly all artists as dissidents or renegades or radicals of one sort or another.” The problem is that the metaphors metastasize. In the blue-chip galleries today, renegades—who are mostly faux renegades—provide a spectacle that some observers find endlessly fascinating. I can’t say I feel that way. And among more sober-minded policymakers in the arts, the same metaphors (Dissident! Radical! Outsider! Renegade!) are marshaled to demonstrate the “urgency” or “importance” of what is going on in the arts and why the arts deserve public support. The trouble, as I see it, is that art is being presented under false pretenses, as a social statement, when it is in fact a statement of an altogether different kind. Ward and Katz would probably not agree. Actually, they seem to positively exult in the politicization of art. When they cite their right-wing critics as the proof of their “correctness,” they are doing one of the things I worried about when I wrote of “liberals reaching out to celebrate works of art simply because they’ve been attacked by the right, as if the Tea Party might now become the reverse-arbiter of all taste.”
Ward and Katz have accused me of being an art-for-art’s-sake formalist of a dithering, reactionary variety. I have a few thoughts about their own art-for-art’s-sake allegiances. I am not sure that anybody has as yet really explained the extent to which, for critics and curators who celebrate “the messiness of lived history,” art-for-art’s-sake is the ultimate stealth weapon. Let me explain. If you write critically about some bit of messy history that has been exhibited in a gallery or a museum, you may very well find yourself told that you have no right to criticize, because what you’re criticizing isn’t life, it’s art. But if you then dare to criticize the very same thing as art, you’ll find the tables reversed. You’ll be told that you still have no right to criticize, only now it’s because what you’re criticizing is somebody’s life.
Which brings us to the end of Ward’s and Katz’s letter, where they say that I “prefer hand-wringing to genuine critical engagement.” Perhaps what Ward and Katz are feeling here has nothing much to do with me, but with their sense that the critical establishment, such as it is, has not brought its finest minds to bear on “Hide/Seek,” certainly not in any extended way. The reviews that I have seen have been positive and friendly, but have hardly declared the show the earth-shattering event that Ward and Katz may have hoped it would be. It took Bill Donohue and Eric Cantor and their gang to accomplish that. As for me, I have never avoided genuine critical engagement. Indeed, I know from experience that genuine critical engagement is well nigh impossible in the Alice-in-Wonderland world where art-for-art’s-sake has become a cover for political correctness.
Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.