Entertainment » Fine Arts

Smithsonian caves to conservative pressure over gay exhibit

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Wednesday Dec 1, 2010

In a statement released Tuesday, the director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery announced that the National Portrait Gallery will remove a four-minute video feature that contains an image of Jesus on a crucifix covered in ants.

The action is seen as the Smithsonian caving to conservative pressure groups over a video work entitled "A Fire in My Belly" by gay artist David Wojnarowicz that's included in the gay-centric exhibit "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture."

According to the Washington Post, "The four-minute video, created by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, had been on exhibit since Oct. 30 as part of a show on sexual difference in American portraiture."

Other works criticized

The work intends to reflect the "violent, disturbing and hallucinatory" aspects of the AIDS epidemic.

The Post report continued" "The piece was called "hate speech" by Catholic League president William Donohue and a misuse of taxpayer money by a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the presumptive incoming House speaker."

The museum’s director Martin E. Sullivan dismissed charges that the Smithsonian was caving into right-wing pressure. "The decision wasn’t caving in," he said. "We don’t want to shy away from anything that is controversial, but we want to focus on the museum’s and this show’s strengths."

"I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious," his statement read. "In fact, the artists’s intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. It was not the museum’s intention to offend. We are removing the video today. The museum’s statement at the exhibition’s entrance, ’This exhibition contains mature themes,’ will remain in place."

The controversial section of Wojnarowicz’s work is an 11-second sequence that shows a small crucifix covered with ants.

Wojnarowicz was a New York’s East Village artist during the 1980s. He died of AIDS in 1992.

While the focus of criticism has been Wojnarowicz’s work, conservative critics have found other works in the exhibit offensive, including an image of Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts.

Investigation called for

Outraged Republican leaders are calling for a Congressional investigation of the museum’s funding.

"Absolutely, we should look at their funds," Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, told Fox News.

An image with Jesus covered in ants from the video "A Fire in My Belly," part of the ’Hide/Seek’ exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery is under fire for hosting an exhibit titled ’Hide/Seek,’ which is filled with homoerotic art such as an image of two naked men embracing, Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts and other controversial installments like a video of Jesus on a crucifix covered in ants.

"Hide/Seek" - the largest and most expensive exhibit in the Portrait Gallery’s history - marks a change in the usually staid institution’s programming. The exhibition, the Post explained "was funded by the largest number of individual donors for a Portrait Gallery show. The show, which cost $750,000, was also underwritten by foundations that support gay and lesbian issues."

The exhibit features works by such other artists as Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, George Bellows, Walker Evans, Marcel Duchamp, Berenice Abbott, Grant Wood, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, David Hockney, Agnes Martin, Andy Warhol, Nan Goldin, Felix Gonzalez-Torres -- and even Andrew Wyeth.

"If they’ve got money to squander like this - of a crucifix being eaten by ants, of Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, men in chains, naked brothers kissing - then I think we should look at their budget."

Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., called it an "outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.

"When a museum receives taxpayer money, the taxpayers have a right to expect that the museum will uphold common standards of decency. The museum should pull the exhibit and be prepared for serious questions come budget time," Cantor said through a spokesman.

Washington Post condemns action

The Fox report also said that "the Smithsonian declined numerous opportunities to comment on the controversy. Spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas told the New York Post that it does not comment "on people’s opinions on art." She also told the newspaper that while the museum receives funding from Congress, the exhibits are funded through private donations.

In response to the National Portrait Gallery’s decision, Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik wrote in today’s edition:

"Until Tuesday afternoon, museum staff, under Director Martin E. Sullivan, believed that "Fire" was interesting art that made important points. And now it looks as though they’re somehow saying that they were wrong about that, and that it really was unfit to be seen or shown, after all.

"If every piece of art that offended some person or some group was removed from a museum, our museums might start looking empty - or would contain nothing more than pabulum. Goya’s great nudes? Gone. The Inquisition called them porn.

"Norman Rockwell would get the boot, too, if I believed in pulling everything that I’m offended by: I can’t stand the view of America that he presents, which I feel insults a huge number of us non-mainstream folks. But I didn’t call for the Smithsonian American Art Museum to pull the Rockwell show that runs through Jan. 2, just down the hall from "Hide/Seek." Rockwell and his admirers got to have their say, and his detractors, including me, got to rant about how much they hated his art. Censorship would have prevented that discussion, and that’s why we don’t allow it."

Follow this link to read Gopnik’s commentary.

To learn more about "Hide/Seek" visit the exhibit’s website.

Watch "Fire in My Belly" by David Wojnarowicz:

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


  • C86, 2010-12-01 14:22:01

    Two issues here. One have these people any idea what art is or it’s purpose, or even been to a museum or gallery? Second the government starts trying to say what can and can’t be shown becomes impingement of the first amendment. Are any of these people required to both read and understand the constitution once they get in office?

  • , 2010-12-01 14:45:34

    Christians understand the Constitution better than the liberals who rave about this cutting edge "art" exhibit. No one is saying the artists should be prevented from showing this, but just that we don’t want one penny of tax dollars funding it. I applaud the Smithsonian for pulling the appalling slap at Christianity from the exhibit, and I urge them to cancel the entire program.

  • Juan, 2010-12-01 16:46:16

    Too bad that while "the museum receives funding from Congress, the exhibits are funded through private donations." AKA, your tax dollars didn’t fund it, other people donating money did. Also, if this is an appalling slap to Christianity, then you really haven’t seen much art have you? Furthermore, freedom of speech includes being able to say or express yourself in any way you see fit within the confines of it must not incite violence (plus some state secrets things). Even if this is an ’appalling’ slap at Christianity, its covered by the First Amendment. How would you like it if I raised a fuss that the many thousands of portraits of Jesus are an appalling slap at atheism (or just about any other religion out there) and demanded that they be pulled? While I don’t have anything against most Christians, most of my friends are Christian, there is a very disturbing number of them who imagine that every article in the Constitution has "as long as it doesn’t do anything bad to Christianity" tacked on to the end. Also, you are in fact saying that artists shouldn’t be allowed to display this by saying the Smithsonian should pull the entire , donations-funded, exhibit. Remember that freedom of speech goes both ways, you’re allowed to say what you like about your religion, with the flip side that everyone else can also say whatever they want about it.

  • wimsy, 2010-12-02 10:33:20

    This sounds a lot like extremist Muslims forbidding any picture of Mohammed. When rightwing christians attack other cults, they’re using their free speech. When others attack them, it’s sacriligious.

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