Yesterday, the National Portrait Gallery pulled a video installation from the exhibit “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” following an uproar from conservative groups. The four-minute video, “A Fire in My Belly” by late artist David Wojnarowicz, depicts ants crawling over Jesus Christ, symbolizing the pain suffered by AIDS victims.
Hide/Seek marks the first major museum survey to explore sexual identity and LGBT themes in American portraiture, and features pieces by Andy Warhol, Annie Leibowitz and Jasper Johns. Although the exhibit has been in place since Oct. 30, it only drew criticism following the publication of an article on Monday by conservative news site CNSNews.com. The article notes that the “Christmas-season exhibit” has used federal funds to display “naked brothers kissing, genitalia, and Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts.” The Smithsonian does receive roughly 70 percent of its funding from the federal government, though funds for specific exhibits — including this one — are raised privately.
In the maelstrom that followed, a National Portrait Gallery spokeswoman said the museum and other Smithsonian museums have been flooded with calls, with people contacting “any e-mail address they could find.” Prior to the article, she said no complaints had been received.
Museum director Martin Sullivan released a statement yesterday about the decision to pull the piece, a portion of which is as follows:
“I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious. In fact, the artist’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.”
It only takes a quick glance at the comments on CNS to see what type of feedback the Smithsonian was receiving yesterday. But the criticism hasn’t been restricted to ordinary CNS readers. The Hill reports that House Speaker-designate Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have called for the exhibit to be shuttered, with Cantor calling the exhibit “an outrageous use of taxpayer money.”
Of course, the larger question here for the Smithsonian is whether their funding is at risk. TBD notes that Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, has called for the Smithsonian’s budget to be reviewed and their books audited. TBD does a great job of taking a look back on whether past threats over controversial pieces have resulted in actual budget cuts for museums.
Sullivan has stated that the exhibit will remain open as planned through February 13.
UPDATE: In protest of the National Portrait Gallery’s decision, Transformer Gallery will be showing “A Fire in My Belly” on a continuous 24-hour loop. The gallery is also organizing a silent walk to the museum at 5:30 p.m.