Last month, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) unveiled “the first major museum exhibition” exploring gender and sexual identity in American culture. With 105 major works by artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and Andy Warhol, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” the NPG pioneered a show that “celebrates gay and lesbian art and delineates its place in the history of American painting and photography.”
But it appears that a celebration of anything LGBT-related cannot exist without inciting right-wing backlash. In yesterday’s release of its expose, the conservative CNS News complained that the exhibit featured images of “male genitals, naked brothers kissing, men in chains, [and] Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts.” The report saved particular scorn for a four-minute video exhibit that included a depiction of ants on an image of Jesus. Entitled “A Fire in My Belly,” the exhibit was intended “to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim” but, instead, set off a firestorm of religious indignation and outcry over the Smithsonian’s federal funding.
After the Catholic League deemed the exhibit an “assault on the sensibilities of Christians” and demanded the government defund the NPG, the Republicans were quick to pile-on. Decrying the exhibit as an “in your face perversion paid for by tax dollars,” House Appropriations Committee member Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) demanded a look at the NPG’s budget, advocating for “calling them up in front of the Appropriations Committee, asking for some resignations, auditing all their budget – all their books.” The House GOP leadership seconded the outrage and Kingston’s call for a Congressional probe into the museum’s funding:
And Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., called it an “outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”
“When a museum receives taxpayer money, the taxpayers have a right to expect that the museum will uphold common standards of decency. The museum should pull the exhibit and be prepared for serious questions come budget time,” Cantor said through a spokesman.
Incoming House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he condemned the use of taxpayer money for the exhibit but would not call for the removal of the exhibit.
“American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy,” Boehner said…”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.”
In the face of such right-wing brow-beating, the NPG has decided to remove the video exhibit. In a statement released this afternoon, the NPG Director Martin Sullivan said, “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.”
It is important to note that, as is common with recent GOP arguments, Republican bluster over NPG’s federal funding doesn’t actually hold water. While 55 percent of the Smithsonian budget is federally funded, those funds are only used to “pay for the buildings, the care of collections exhibited at Smithsonian venues, and museum staff.” Museum exhibits are funded solely by private donations, including “Hide/Seek.” But regardless these facts, history proves that, despite the NPG’s hope, conservative outrage will lead institutions to remove whatever is deemed offensive, regardless of what it may celebrate.