There's a famous piece of artwork by Keith Haring, "Silence = Death," created in the mid-1980s as HIV/AIDS wreaked havoc across the country, particularly in the gay community. How tragic that more than 20 years after that piece of art was created, there's still an effort to treat HIV/AIDS with a heaping dose of silence and censorship.
The Smithsonian provided exhibit A last week, when part of an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery was censored after religious conservatives complained about a video portrait that told the story of a suffering AIDS victim. Exhibit B belongs to the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, Wisconsin, which has pulled an image from a show of 40 pieces commemorating World AIDS Day. The show, "Living with HIV/AIDS: Perspectives Through the Lens," runs through this Sunday, but if you manage to check it out this week, you won't see a piece by an artist known as Oren called "Stripped." Overture staff decided to pull the image, because they worried how viewers would interpret it.
The image itself? Yes, it's called "Stripped," and yes, it does focus on a man who is clearly naked. But the image does not include full nudity; instead, a handful of pill bottles, a daily ritual for many living with HIV/AIDS, covers all private parts. The artist included a narrative with the piece, which explains the title: "I can strip everything else away, but the insidious virus still remains."
According to the artist: "Overture agreed to host and be a venue for us to tell our stories. I felt very good going into this whole process - it was a great experience - and then at the end I can't help but feel stigmatized, as if I'd created something dirty or inappropriate that shouldn't be seen, and that it isn't fit for young eyes."
What a damning message for the Overture Center for the Arts to send. Let them know that censoring artwork like this is not only inappropriate, it could help foster the very stigma that exhibits like this are supposed to condemn and dismantle.
Yet instead of capturing that reality in its full depth and breadth, Overture has decided to remove one piece which it deemed too controversial. That piece, "Stripped" by an artist known as Oren, conveyed a tremendously important message: that no matter how much someone living with HIV/AIDS sheds, the virus always remains.
That message should be seen and consumed by patrons. Moreover, your job as purveyors of art is to defend the integrity of art. In this case, I think Overture failed.
Moreover, your exhibit was supposed to highlight the importance of talking about HIV, and showing what life with HIV/AIDS looks like. But by removing this piece, you're sending a message (even if it's not intentional) that silence and censorship is an appropriate way to handle themes surrounding HIV.
Please reconsider your decision to remove this work. Thank you.