Cave-in at Smithsonian, freedom crushed

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Comment? E-mail me

It was too good to last.

For one brief, shining moment, the National Portrait Gallery was an institution with courage, mounting the risk-taking, powerful exhibit “Hide/Seek” featuring gay artists and images of same-sex love.

Then the culture warriors struck — and the museum, part of the government-supported Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., retreated by censoring one of the artworks they had proudly displayed for less than two months.

It happened quickly. On Nov. 30, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights attacked a video in the exhibit made by David Wojnarowicz, a gay artist who died of AIDS complications in 1992. The focus of the complaint was an 11-second image of a crucifix with ants crawling on it. “Hate speech,” cried the Catholic League.

A who’s-who of Republican congressional leaders lined up to support removal of the piece, to condemn the entire exhibit and, for good measure, to call for reconsideration of the museum’s funding. Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia called it an “outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.” (The exhibit itself is privately funded, but the Smithsonian receives some 55% of its operating budget from the federal government.)

Hours later — that’s right, hours — museum officials removed the offending video. I doubt even Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran commands such speedy compliance from his minions.

Why the 11 seconds of ants on a crucifix is so offensive is difficult for me to fathom. According to Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik, the work was intended to speak to the suffering of the artist’s dead friend and is part of “the great tradition of using images of Christ to speak about the suffering of all mankind.”

But if it offends, it should be remembered that art often offends. It is, in fact, the very nature of art to explore boundaries, challenge taboos and expand horizons.

“Hide/Seek” was probably doomed from the start because it dared to put gay love on display at a time when the country is bitterly divided over all things same-sex. The ant-covered crucifix was the trigger, but the target was a mainstream museum that dared to present gay artists and people as, well, gay artists and people.

For the first time, the influence of gay artists — Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, Romaine Brooks, Grant Wood, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and many others — is openly and honestly addressed in this thought-provoking, ground-breaking exhibition.

By caving in to pressure, the National Portrait Gallery violates First Amendment principles and creates a chilling effect that will no doubt affect future exhibits throughout the Smithsonian.

One can only hope that thinking Americans will speak up, condemning censorship — and calling for artistic freedom, the lifeblood of a free and open society.

Comment? E-mail me