Yesterday (Nov 30th), in response to complaints from the Catholic League and several Republican representatives the National Portrait Gallery decided to remove Fire in My Belly, a video by multimedia artist David Wojnarowicz. The video was part of Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, an exhibition exploring issues of sexuality and specifically gay sexuality (thought the official description of the exhibition carefully avoids explicit references to homosexuality).
The Catholic League objected to the “homoerotic images” and said the exhibition offended Christians. Eventually they zeroed in on David Wojnarowicz’ 1987 video, which uses, among many others, images of crucifixes in a work which is part death elegy about the artist’s mentor and lover Peter Hujar, part angry tirade about the AIDS epidemic. The Catholic League, supported by Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the presumptive incoming House speaker, and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), called the video “hate speech.”
Cantor reportedly called for the cancellation of the whole exhibition, which he called an “outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.” Boehner didn’t directly call for a cancellation but threatened the funding of the Museum saying “Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January when the new majority in the House moves to end the job-killing spending spree in Washington.”
Anybody is entitled to criticize an art show – call it offensive and “hate speech” if they so prefer – but should the National Portrait Gallery respond to complaints by interest groups and tailor their programming to their views? Remember the First Amendment? Government officials cannot and should not decide to discriminate among viewpoints, no matter how much pressure they get. We all pay taxes and a (very small) part of these taxes goes to maintain a vibrant and diverse cultural sphere that serves all Americans not just Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals. We may differ on cultural or social issues and argue about these issues – in the press, in public spaces, in galleries and performance spaces , but government officials cannot manage money so as to silence those with whom they disagree.
And let us be clear here: it is not the presence of a crucifix per se that offended Catholics (there are many gruesome crucifixes in national galleries), it is the use of the image of the crucifix in a video about AIDS, a work where the Passion of the Christ is used as an analogy to the suffering brought about by the AIDS epidemic. The Catholic League may insist that religious symbols are their property and others (especially homosexuals) cannot use them, and they can argue that point as much as they like, but a national museum is barred by the First Amendment and by its mission to serve all Americans to enforce the views of conservative Catholics on all of us.
The Smithsonian, of which the National Portrait Gallery is part, is a public trust serving the interests of all Americans. It betrays its mission the moment it ejects a work whose viewpoint some dislike.
Transformer Gallery, a non-profit visual arts organization, will begin showing the video work in their 1404 P Street, NW Washington, DC storefront project space beginning at 1 pm today, Dec 1st.
NCAC will be sending the letter of protest to the Gallery. Stay tuned for further developments!