Banned From the Smithsonian?

Activists protested Portrait Gallery action


The National Portrait Gallery become a performance art space last Saturday when two District residents, Mike Blasenstein and Mike Iacovone, were detained by police after returning a work of art to the gallery.

Usually, police only get involved when someone removes art, but this was a special case.

As everyone knows, the usually low-profile Portrait Gallery became big news when it removed David Wojnarowicz’s video work “A Fire in My Belly” from its current exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” after complaints from the Catholic League and other conservative groups. D.C.’s Transformer Gallery began running the film in its window, and one demonstrator projected it on the side of the gallery building. Blasenstein and Iacovone decided to bring the video back inside.

Blasenstein played the part of gallery wall, standing outside the entrance to “Hide/Seek” with an iPad running the Wojnarowicz work. Iacovone filmed the silent protest. Museum security and the Metropolitan Police Department intervened; the two Mikes cooperated.

And then the performance piece became theatre of the absurd.

The activists did not seem surprised to be removed, and after engaging in their peaceful action, they may have anticipated some sort of sanction.

But the MPD banned Iacovone from the Smithsonian for a year, and banned Blasenstein from all Smithsonian properties “indefinitely.”

No Zoolights or Mr. Rogers’s sweater or midday IMAX showings of “To Fly” for them. They’re banned! Banned, I tell you! Who knew Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons” worked for the MPD?

Even the authorities concede that this is rather silly. The Smithsonian consists of nearly two dozen museums and galleries in multiple buildings, and none of them check identification. It is possible Mike or Mike could be arrested if a particular guard happened to recognize one of them, but unless they were again engaging in prohibited activity, even that would be unlikely. 

Still, it is troubling that the police claim the authority to unilaterally ban individuals from a public place without a hearing.

Blasenstein and Iacovone can call their operation a success. They briefly returned “A Fire in My Belly” to the Portrait Gallery, doing what museum director Martin Sullivan should have done.

The fight continues. National Portrait Gallery commissioner James Bartlett, formerly of the Cleveland Museum of Art, has resigned in protest, and on Thursday, the Warhol Foundation condemned the removal of the Wojnarowicz film, saying the attacks on the work, “based on ignorance, hatred and fear, have no place in America’s civil society and should certainly not dictate the actions taken by its cultural leaders.”

Warhol, of course, said that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” With their 10 minutes of protest, Blasenstein and Iacovone achieved that -- and struck a blow against censorship.

Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC

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