I believe I'll be asking my Senators and Congressman to expand funding for the Smithsonian

Carla Axtman

This one has been sticking in my craw all day:

National Public Radio:

Gay Portraiture Exhibit Sparks Funding Debate

An exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington has sparked debate over federal funding for the arts. The exhibit, called Hide/Seek, features artists and cultural figures who were gay, or believed to be gay. A video in the exhibit was removed after it prompted complaints, but the debate didn't end there.

The four-minute video is about the death of the artist's partner from AIDS-related illness. It includes a shot of a crucifix crawling with ants.

A lay organization called the Catholic League protested. "The Smithsonian would never have little ants crawling all over an image of Mohammad," said Catholic League president Bill Donohue.

Donohue has some support from Congress. Virginia Republican Rep. Eric Cantor, the incoming House majority leader, urged the Portrait Gallery to shut down the whole show, calling it "an outrageous use of taxpayer money."

The exhibit actually was funded by private donors, but after receiving a flood of e-mails, gallery director Martin Sullivan removed the video.

Ridiculous. No curator/museum director worth their salt caves to such censorship. First of all, it's a privately funded. But even if it weren't, art is fundamentally about expression, ideas and issues; a commentary on society. It's supposed to provoke thought and bring ideas to the fore. This should be encouraged and supported, not thwarted because a vocal homophobe and his minions find it objectionable.

(More after the jump)

More from PZ Myers:

The work in question was a video about the pain of AIDS victims in Mexico, and references the Catholicism of that country by showing a crucifix with ants crawling on it. Apparently, you can make explicit movies that show Jesus getting whipped, tortured, nailed, and stabbed (Donohue loved Gibson's Passion!), but we've got to draw the line at showing bugs crawling on him. Although, probably, Donohue doesn't so much object to tormenting Jesus as he does to the implicit criticism of Catholicism, which is his true god. And perhaps also to the fact that it was part of an exhibit on sexual and gender identity, which makes all patriarchal homophobes a little queasy.

But so what? Since when do individuals or organizations get to declare what kind of art is permissible, and get national art institutions to yank out exhibits? I am unsurprised that Donohue brayed like an idiot, because that's what he does, but I am appalled at the response from the gallery.

Exactly. It's appalling that the Smithsonian would buckle in this way. I couldn't say this this better than Myers, so I'll shut up about this part now.

Next time I'm in DC however, I plan to patronize the Transformer Gallery:

Transformer Gallery manager Barbara Escobar says it will show the video piece, "A Fire in My Belly" by David Wojnarowicz, in its storefront window every day until it's reinstated at the National Portrait Gallery.

The gallery also is organizing a silent protest march Thursday evening to the Smithsonian.

In case you don't recognize it, this is what it looks like when people who support the First Amendment have a spine.

This effort by Donohue is no better than banning books in public libraries and schools. It's plain, old-fashioned provincial censorship.

If the crazed conservative Republicans in the federal legislature try to yank funding for the Smithsonian--the Oregon delegation had better stand up and take this fight back to them...and I mean you too, Greg Walden. This is appalling and disgusting. Even you can't support the yanking of funding over a privately funded exhibit.

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    Does the problem issue from a "vocal homophobe" or is it a religious affront? Both?

    I'm going to object to your objection using the grounds of censorship, because, for argument's sake, let's say someone wanted to show a video of a group sex orgy to no other point. I expect the curators would decline it, which you could call either "censorship" or taste or judgment or appropriateness of venue.

    Obviously the Smithsonian will exercise judgment of what is appropriate art or public displays. So it seems to me you have to defend (or fold) any particular exhibit on that basis, not the basis that you can show any damn thing (which is not to say the government has the legal right of censorship of the material overall).

    If the corollary to the dust-up at the Smithsonian is books in public libraries, then it must be defended on the same grounds: that it has social value and is appropriate or important for a publicly funded institution.

    I heard this report this morning, and cannot imagine that enough brouhaha would prevail to put the Smithsonian's funding in jeopardy, though it may prove useful as a political talking point in some circles. (This again?! Reagan-era religious conservatism redux!)

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      The problem stems from lots of issues, vocal homophobe being the most prominent.

      It's quite clearly censorship. Donohue is offended by the art--and pressures the Smithsonian to pull it, which they do. It's classic.

      A curator making decisions about which art to display relative to a show has nothing to do with censorship. If that were the case, there'd be a commitment to hang or display everything--with no sense of purpose or cohesion. It's their job to select works based on the statement being made.

      Quite obviously this art has deep social value or it wouldn't have made it to the Smithsonian level in the first place. But I have heard from some of who've seen it and said that it's an outstanding show. The fact that it was yanked because it pushes on religion is appalling and disgusting.

      Given that Donohue has managed to get Eric Cantor involved, whose never seen a power grab he didn't love, tells me that there's quite a good chance that the yanking of Smithsonian funding could get legs.

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        The objectionable issue to me was coercion -- both the wielding and the yielding. People, and institutions, may censor themselves all the time for good reason, but I take your point about this sort -- and this particular censorship.

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    Agreed - this is nonsense. While obviously not EVERYTHING counts as art, this is an absurd action and reaction. Congrats on Donohue for winning Bigot of the Week over this. http://hulshofschmidt.wordpress.com/2010/12/03/bigot-of-the-week-award-december-3/

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    I subscribe to The Smithsonian magazine and I get nervous when I read that Opus Dei Hon. John Roberts is the chancellor of The Smithsonian.

    But he wouldn't be fool enough to overstep his bounds and say anything publicly.

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