M I C H A E L   K A T A K I S

Removal of Maya Lin Portrait from National Portrait Gallery

From: Michael Katakis

16 December 2010

Dr. G. Wayne Clough
Secretary of the Smithsonian
Smithsonian Institution
P.O. Box 37012
MRC 016
Washington D.C 20013-7012

Dear Dr. Clough,

I have thought long and hard before writing this letter but there are times when the hypocrisy rises to just below one’s chin, then one either does something about it or drowns in it. I have chosen not to drown.

Sadly, I must tell you now why I am making a formal request that my photographic portrait of Maya Lin, that was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery for it’s collection some years ago, be returned to me immediately for I can no longer have my work in an institution such as yours.

Over the last week I have watched and listened with great interest and, an open mind, to the varying opinions regarding the removal of Mr. Wojnarowicz’s video installation titled,  “Fire in My Belly” that was part of the National Portrait Gallery’s, Hide/Seek exhibition over the last six weeks.

I had hoped in the ensuing days that a satisfying editorial rational would be put forward explaining why the piece suddenly did not fit into the exhibition it had been part of since the exhibition’s inception, or for that matter, any compelling artistic argument as to why the art in question was now unsuitable for the show.

No such reasons were given but what has become disturbingly clear is that the National Portrait Gallery has removed the ‘questionable’ art, from an ongoing exhibition, not because of the works merit or lack there of, or for that matter large scale protests (which would be no justification for removal) but because of a little fundamentalist named William Donohue of the Catholic League who, with other bigots and solipsistic careerists, expressed offense at something in the exhibition.

The charges of religion being insulted or his vilifying of Jews and homosexuals seem to always be Mr. Donohue’s modus operandi in getting attention. It is this man, this kind of ignorant bigot that you were so afraid of, so much so, that you took down an installation of a work in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery?

Sir you have made a horrific decision and betrayed a trust that was not yours to give away. It was your job to stand up against the bullies and book burners and those who would decide what we see and read and say. It was your job to stand firm.

As a very frightened little boy I remember being taken to a Chicago Library. The kindly librarian saw that I was very scared and no doubt my father had informed her that back in our small apartment my mother was dying. The librarian walked around her large desk and put her arm around my shoulder and then walked me through the towering shelves of books and then she said:

“Every word in all of these books is a thread that will weave a magic carpet that will take you everywhere and after you have traveled through these pages you will find that there are more kind and open hearts than there are monsters and knowing that will make you less afraid.”

Over the next few years my father and the librarian directed me to the world. There was ‘Kim’ and Mark Twain who described racism so well that I began to understand the cruelty that I was seeing in the streets of Chicago in regard to the treatment of black people. I read the ‘Arabian Nights’ and later on Mein Kamph, which made me want to know more about WWII and how a nation could follow such a monster.

The librarian and my father were not protecting me from the world but rather introducing it to me with balance and context and knowledge. What they did was to show me the whole of the world and of human conduct and that just led to more questions and reading and then understanding.

I never knew if the librarian was right or left, gay or straight, religious or not. What I do know however is that she took the trust that had been placed in her hands seriously but, at her core, I believe what she cherished above all things were the rights of expression. To read and write and think and speak what one wished even if those words or ideas offended others. She realized then, as I do now, that the hope for us all resided on those shelves and in those volumes and she guarded them for the majority of her life I suspect.

I am so sorry that you felt that you could not rise to a level of that small, magnificent neighborhood librarian and I really don’t care what claims of political pressures were placed upon you or the threats which, I’m, sure, were made regarding funding by the little cultural blackmailers the likes of Congressmen Boehner and Cantor.

You should have called the little bullies bluff, for the bully is never satiated when one capitulates, only emboldened.

I am sorry that I have had to write this letter and regret its tone, but sir; you have done something horrific, something that has been the currency of despots in other societies. You have taken away someone’s voice. And when the time came for you to stand and say no to the blackmailers and zealots you remained seated and for this reason I cannot have my work in the possession of your institution.


Michael Katakis

cc: Martin Sullivan, Director, National Portrait Gallery

      Steve Kroft, CBS 60 Minutes

      Frank Rich, The New York Times

      The Chicago Tribune

      The Guardian

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