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Smithsonian Caves to GOP Pressure, Removes Ant-Covered Jesus Video

by Kyle Chayka on December 1, 2010

Still from Wojnarowicz' “A Fire In My Belly” (image from washingtonpost.com)

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has caved under Republican political pressure and removed a potentially “offensive” video work by David Wojnarowicz, a multi-media artist who was felled by AIDS in 1992, from its Hide/Seek exhibition. The exhibition, deemed brave and important by critics, uncovers previously-veiled LGBT influences in the history of art. Yet threats and demands that the exhibition be canceled from Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have caused the NPG to remove Wojnarowicz’ “A Fire In My Belly,” a video that includes a brief clip of ants crawling over a Jesus figure on a cross.

The insanity continues as Rep. Cantor claims that the NPG’s scheduling of this exhibition during the holiday season was a pointed attempt to offend Christians. Cantor also “demanded that the exhibit be pulled, calling it ‘an outrageous use of taxpayer money.’” While the situation isn’t exactly clear, what is clear is that the culture wars have once again gone hot: knee-jerk political reaction to what amounts to fairly mundane imagery has not only received public attention, but has caused a museum to physically remove work in what amounts to outright censorship.

Watch a video clip of Wojnarowicz’ piece here and first judge it yourself. Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik describes the crux of the offending work,

For 11 seconds of that meandering, stream-of-consciousness work (the full version is 30 minutes long) a crucifix appears onscreen with ants crawling on it. It seems such an inconsequential part of the total video that neither I nor anyone I’ve spoken to who saw the work remembered it at all.

Still from Wojnarowicz' “A Fire In My Belly” (image from washingtonpost.com)

Screen captures and clips of the work show it to be a short, relatively tame scene. Dark, splotchy insects crawl over a plastic figurine, profane in the way that any physically disturbing painting of Jesus is profane. Wojnarowicz doesn’t blaspheme; his commentary is on loss of faith and doubt, a despairing image rather than one meant to shock. The video actually commemorates Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz’ artist-colleague and lover. Not that the artist’s body of work or intention matters to the Republicans.

Blake Gopnik argues that the fuss is not about the details of the removed piece, but “about the larger topic of the show: gay love, and images of it.” The Portrait Gallery has “given into” the Republican’s attack by taking the video down.

Think Progress documents the scandal and notes that government funding did not contribute to the Hide/Seek exhibition. New York Magazine has a good recap of the events and the quotes that matter. Washington City Paper quotes NPG gallery director Martin Sullivan, who says, “it is not the intention of the Smithsonian to pull the exhibit,” but doesn’t the removal of even one work constitute undue caving to political pressure and a compromised exhibition?

With the political arena more galvanized than ever, a political tide that has recently made a right turn, and Fox News pundits like Glenn Beck having conniptions over art, we are probably entering a shaky period for public museums. Will this first move by the NGP prove to set a new, low standard for the separation of art and state?

UPDATE: Modern Art Notes reports that the decision to remove the offending video was made by Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, who was briefed on the situation by telephone.

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