In October, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery unveiled a new exhibit, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture”, which explored gender and sexual identity in American culture. Four weeks later, the conservative CNS News released a report complaining about some of the artwork, including a video exhibit that showed ants on top of an image of Jesus, meant to symbolize the suffering of an AIDS victim. Soon thereafter, the right-wing backlash began.
As ThinkProgress detailed last month, conservatives were up in arms against what the Catholic League called an “assault on the sensibilities of Christians.” Many on the right called for a congressional probe into the museum’s funding, including Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) and incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). The day after CNS News’s report, the Smithsonian decided to remove the video in question.
Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) fired another volley this week in the war against the Smithsonian. During an interview on the right-wing radio program Wallbuilders Live!, Forbes and host Rick Green agreed that funding for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery was unconstitutional because, as they allege, the Constitution “only gives Congress the power to protect an artist’s creation, not to actually fund it”:
GREEN: We’ve been talking about how Article I, Section 8 only gives Congress the power to protect an artist’s creation, not to actually fund it. So Congressman Forbes, what do you think?
FORBES: I think that’s a great point. As you know, the Founders envisioned us just creating an environment where we were empowering artists to use their talents and their creations, and we were having individuals reach out and raise those funds on their own and not involve the government in doing that. We’ve come so far away from the original intent about constitutional mandate and I think it’s time we get back to it.
GREEN: Yeah, seems like if you did it that way where Congress was protecting their rights in terms of being able to do it and in terms of protecting their proprietary creations, but then the market would decide whether or not the money would there to do something. I can’t imagine folks like this — this trash that gets out there — being funded by the market. Maybe it would be, but at least it wouldn’t be my tax dollars, you know what I mean?
FORBES: Well I think you’re right Rick. We see that over and over again when we get these left-wing radio shows and these left-wing TV programs, and you just look at the viewing audience and where it is. They’re always subsidized, if they’re not subsidized by the federal government, it’s somebody who has that kind of agenda. And every single time, their ratings are very, very low and their viewing audience is very, very low. So as you mentioned, in the marketplace of ideas, this is just not the kind of thing that would be very acceptable, and I think you wouldn’t see it coming in a private sector venue.
Though Forbes is up in arms about federal funding being used to pay the Smithsonian’s budget, ThinkProgress’s Tanya Somanader makes an important point: “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.’”
Still, Forbes is simply adding his voice to the growing chorus of conservatives — including Ginni Thomas, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), and failed Senate nominees Joe Miller, Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, and John Raese — who simply declare any policy they disagree with “unconstitutional.”