Art Museums and Critics Unite in Protest to Smithsonian Censorship

Nothing strikes up censorship debates like a mishandled art show.

The latest story?  Smithsonian’s most recent show in the National Portrait Gallery, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” hit a double-whammy of criticism last week because 1) it had a video with an image of ants crawling across a crucifix, which House Republicans and Catholics didn’t like, and 2) the Smithsonian decided to appease them by taking the video out of the show all together.

But let’s unpack this whole context for a minute– “Hide/Seek,” privately funded and consisting of 150 artworks, looks at American art and how it represents homosexual desire.  According to the museum’s website, it is “the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture.”  

The video in question is “A Fire in My Belly” by David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992.  Shot in Mexico in the 1980s, the 13-minute long “A Fire in My Belly” looked at the reality of AIDS in Latin American culture as well as Wojnarowicz’s own personal struggle with a disease that eventually killed him.  

And the 11-second crucifix image, in the context of his entire video, is a metaphor for the AIDS crisis and lack of Christian empathy in fighting the disease during the early years of its discovery.  The exhibit opened on October 30.  Complaints didn’t come until November 29, when an article by Penny Starr went up on the right-wing Cyber News Service.

Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League, saw the video differently, calling it a form of hate speech that “assaults religion” and advocated that federal funding for the Smithsonian be cut if the video weren’t removed from the exhibit.  

Republican Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia called the video “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season,” and Republican Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia labeled it “in-your-face perversion paid for by tax dollars.”    

A spokesman for incoming House speaker John Boehner warned that the Smithsonian should “be prepared to face tough scrutiny” under the House’s new Republican majority if it did not shut down the exhibit.  Soon enough, Fox News joined the bandwagon, and soon enough, 11 seconds of social commentary got warped into 11 seconds of anti-Christian bashing.

For the record, none of “Hide/Seek’s” criticizers except for Starr has thought to step foot into the exhibit itself.  

Unfortunately, “tax dollars” has become the new code word for censorship bait.  When the threat of federal funding cuts entered the picture, the Smithsonian immediately decided to pull the video, knowing full well that the move would open the floodgates of criticism and censorship.  

They couldn’t even come up with a plausible excuse– just that the video “was detracting from the entirety of the exhibition.”  

According to National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan, the Smithsonian sees itself as “one of the many, many players in this new discussion or debate that’s going on in Congress about federal spending, the proper federal role in culture and the arts and so forth.  We don’t think it’s in the interest, not only of the Smithsonian but of other federally supported cultural organizations, to pick fights.”  

I foresee a lifetime of Neo-Classical portraiture resulting from this argument, which the Met is already overstocked with.

“Hide/Seek’s” co-curator Jonathan Katz claims that the Smithsonian didn’t consult him at all.  “It was an incredibly stupid decision,” he said.  “I am flabbergasted that they rose to the bait so readily.”  The other curator, David C. Ward, was consulted, but he states that he didn’t agree with the decision.

Protestors who attempted to bring the video back into the gallery by playing it on an iPad were detained by security and banned from the building that houses the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The move provoked a slew of protests from artists, museums and art critics alike.  A New York Times editorial called it “an appalling act of political cowardice.”  LA Times art critic Christopher Knight calls the incident anti-gay bullying, asking,

Will it work this time?  The onslaught might damage art museums which would be lamentable.  And Smithsonian acquiescence is a self-inflicted wound.

The Association of Art Museum Directors issued a statement against the Smithsonian, calling the video’s removal “extremely regrettable”:

Discouraging the exchange of ideas undermines the principles of freedom of expression, plurality and tolerance on which our nation was founded.  This includes the forcible withdrawal of a work of art from within an exhibition– and the threatening of an institution’s funding sources.

New York art gallery PPOW, which also represents Wojnarowicz’s estate, posted “A Fire in My Belly” online and is offering to ship copies of it to anyone willing to screen it in protest.  New Museum, which gave Wojnarowicz his first retrospective in 1999, took up the offer and is currently screening the video in its lobby.  So are the CB1 Gallery in Los Angeles and the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

New Museum and CB1 are not alone.  According to Artinfo, “institutions around the world have requested copies for screenings, from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London… to the Art Institute of Chicago, to many smaller institutions and art schools.”  Indianapolis Museum of Art is planning on installing a Wojnarowicz poster in its welcome center.  

Washington, DC nonprofit Transformer screened the video for 48 hours in its front window.  Their organized protest brought out 100 demonstrators, most of whom are artists.  “This is a sign of solidarity and a call to our lawmakers that silence equals death,” said executive director Victoria Reis.

Photographer Dawoud Bey, who attended Transformer’s protest, remarked that the outcry against and pulling of Wojnarowicz’s video is “an attack on the American people.”

On Monday, the Andy Warhol Foundation, which gave the Smithsonian $100,000 to help cover costs for the exhibition, threatened to discontinue its financial support if the video isn’t put back into the show.  In the last three years, it has given the Smithsonian a total of $375,000 for various exhibitions.  The Warhol board decision to end funding over “A Fire in My Belly’s” removal was an unanimous one, which means it got yeses from Yale art school dean Robert Storr, New Museum director Lisa Phillips, Walker Art Center director Olga Viso, Yale University Art Gallery director Jock Reynolds, and artists Cindy Sherman and Shirin Neshat.

“I regret that you have put us in this position, but there is no other course we can take,” Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs wrote.  “For the arts to flourish the arts must be free, and the decision to censor this important work is in stark opposition to our mission to defend freedom of expression wherever and whenever it is under attack.”

“Unfortunately the exhibition itself has been lost in the mudslinging,” said Katz.  “The way forward is to refocus attention to the degree by which the show, by remaining up, continues to resist politics.”

This Wednesday, the show’s curators, Jonathan Katz and David Ward, will be holding a discussion about the entire controversy at the New York Public Library.  An emergency organizing meeting is scheduled for that same day at PPOW, and another protest is scheduled for December 19.  The show is scheduled to stay up, without Wojnarowicz’s video, until February 13.

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Photo courtesy of mp_eds via Flickr


William C
William C17 days ago


W. C
W. C18 days ago

Thank you for the information.

Sam M.
Sam M.6 years ago

Absolutely pathetic! The Smithsonian has essentially declared itself a hostile witness. The Smithsonian has broken faith with art and the art world. I am afraid the art would must now break faith with the Smithsonian.

Sam M.
Sam M.6 years ago

Absolutely pathetic! The Smithsonian has essentially declared itself a hostile witness. The Smithsonian has broken faith with art and the art world. I am afraid the art would must now break faith with the Smithsonian. Art Exhibitions

Bart V.
Bart V.7 years ago

Excellent article by Safa. But I'd like to amicably disagree with the statement "lack of Christian empathy in fighting the disease at its first discovery." I remember well the early years of the epidemic, when the gay community worked alone, with no assistance from anyone, to frantically attempt to stem the spread of HIV. The Christian response had the compassion of the Third Reich. They fought vociferously, & successfully; in opposition to the allocation of any public funds for HIV research. Subsequently, thousands were denied any opportunity for survival. To the religious right, largely under the umbrella of the Moral majority at the time; HIV/AIDS, was manna from heaven. They feel that it was proof that god was punishing sinners.with a vengeance. They ignore, of course, the poor aim of their deity, with the disease taking out women & children while missing millions of homosexuals.They will today claim that they're at the forefront of helping AIDS patients. That is breathtaking hypocrisy. They took no interest in assisting the victims of AIDS until heterosexual Africa became decimated.Personally, as one who grew up a contented Catholic during the days of Dominus vobiscum; I could see a display of ants crawling over a crucifix as having great pro-Christian symbolism. But for concrete thinkers who need things detailed in text with fewer syllables, this may not be within their abilities.

pam w.
pam w7 years ago

It is the same difference whatsoever. This video wasn't even ABOUT's about AIDS...guess you missed that part.

But to answer your question...the purpose of art is to create thoughts and emotions in the viewer. I'm glad to see the Smithsonian show it and deeply disturbed that they "caved" under the clamor from the "PC MOB."

If there were images of the KKK or Anita Bryant or even Rev. Phelps and his disgusting mob....I'd say FINE. It's art. And art should be seen....not censored because someone find their feelings hurt.

Elizabeth M C.
Past Member 7 years ago

(This is no different than the Muslims in Europe, screaming "HATE SPEECH" when someone draws a cartoon they don't like.)

Not exactly Pam. Not even close.
No one is committing or threatening murder over it.
Second of all, the cartoon was portrayed in a PRIVATE newspaper; not one that was federally funded.
Getting back to your other comment, you may not be offended by this display because you are agnostic.
But I dare say, by the same token you don't have to be black or gay to be offended by speech that disparages them.
Why the double standard when it comes to religion?

pam w.
pam w7 years ago

As I said before...beware of those who scream "HATE SPEECH" ...they usually have their own agenda. This is no different than the Muslims in Europe, screaming "HATE SPEECH" when someone draws a cartoon they don't like.

pam w.
pam w7 years ago

I beg your pardon....I watched the entire video. Don't see a single "HATE THE CHRISTIANS" comment in it. Did you? Does it urge murder of Christians? Does it call for their removal from the country? does not. It shows an image (brief, actually) of a religious symbol.

BIG DEAL! The purpose of the piece was to create thought. I guess you didn't watch it enough.

Elizabeth M C.
Past Member 7 years ago

It disparages a protected group: the religion of Christianity
If you had familiarized yourself with the display in question, you wouldn't have had to ask that question..
The Smithsonian received federal funding to the tune of $761.4 million in 2010 alone.
Tax dollars should not fund hate speech.