First Glee, Then Outrage at National Portrait Gallery

Earlier this fall, the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery in Washington earned big queer cred with the opening of “Hide/ Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” a collaboration between senior curator David C. Ward and Jonathan D. Katz, a SUNY Buffalo art historian, gay activist, and longtime associate of Larry Kramer, that created the first exhibition by a major art museum focused on LGBT themes.

That good will started leaking out of the balloon big time last week with the decision by the gallery to remove a video created by the late David Wojnarowicz entitled “A Fire in My Belly.” Wojnarowicz used an image of ants crawling all over a crucifix to convey the suffering of somebody dying of AIDS, which claimed his life in 1992. The gallery acted after complaints surfaced from members of Congress as well as the Catholic League, a right-wing group based in New York that often agitates against gay rights and expressions of LGBT visibility.

In an interview with the New York Times, Bill Donohue, the Catholic League's president, equated the video with hate speech.

“It would jump out at people if they had ants crawling all over the body of Mohammed, except that they wouldn't do it, of course, for obvious reasons,” the newspaper quoted Donohue saying. “I'm not going to buy the argument that this is some statement about some poor guy dying of AIDS. Was this supposed to be a Christmas present to Catholics?”

Donohue told the Times that the Smithsonian's public funding should be cut if such art is part of its programming.

“If the government cannot take the public's money and pick its pocket to promote religion, why is it okay to pick its pocket and assault religion?,” he said.

Speaking to Fox News, Eric Cantor, the number two Republican in the US House of Representatives, called the display of Wojnarowicz's video “an outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”

The Portrait Gallery's director, Martin Sullivan, defended the decision to remove the video by saying “some of the accounts of this got out so virally and so vehemently that people were leaping to a conclusion that we were intentionally trying to provoke Christians or spoil the Christmas season.” While acknowledging to the Times that Wojnarowicz worked with “vivid, colorful imagery and sometimes shocking metaphors” to represent “the reality of the suffering of the AIDS epidemic in Latin American culture,” Sullivan said Donohue's and Cantor's reactions were based on “misperceptions.”

He acknowledged that the gallery would face criticism from defenders of artistic freedom.

Two decades ago, similar controversies broke out after a museum in Cincinnati mounted a controversial exhibition of gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's work and when Congress bullied the National Endowment for the Arts to pull funding from four controversial performances artists, three of them gay or lesbian.

Ironically, two of the “NEA 4,” Tim Miller and Holly Hughes, are currently performing shows in New York.