The Smithsonian Institution is under fire for an exhibition called Hide/Seek that is being touted as the "first major exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture."
There are some very famous artists represented in the show: Andy Warhol, Walt Whitman and Jasper Johns, among many others. But the work that so far has been the most controversial is a provocative video from 1987 by the late artist David Wojnarowicz called A Fire In My Belly.
Martin Sullivan, director of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, says the artist created the piece as a response to the "agony and suffering" of his partner who at the time was dying of AIDS. Using "vivid colors, and some fairly grotesque scenes, it's more a meditation on the fragility of the human flesh," Sullivan says.
But included in that meditation is a crucifix — a cross bearing the body of Christ — crawling with ants. The image, according to Catholic League President Bill Donohue, is offensive. He calls the video "hate speech" and says that "the Smithsonian would never have their little ants crawling all over an image of Muhammad."
Donohue says he complained to members of Congress and the Smithsonian's Board of Regents. "My principle is very simple," he says, "If it's wrong for the government to take the taxpayers' money to promote religion, why is it OK to take taxpayers' money to assault religion?"
Donohue admits he has not seen the exhibition Hide/Seek, but he did see the video images of the ants on the crucifix online.
Donohue's concerns echo those of others who've complained to the National Portrait Gallery, says Sullivan. So Sullivan decided to remove A Fire In My Belly from the show.
"The concern that people of the Christian faith were apparently telling us — 'You wouldn't do this to a Muslim image' — was distracting to the larger and more important themes of the show, which is why we did the exhibition in the first place," Sullivan explains.
At least one critic has accused the Smithsonian of caving in to pressure from Catholics and from two Republican members of Congress. Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia called the exhibition "an outrageous use of taxpayer money." A spokesperson for incoming House Speaker John Boehner told The Hill newspaper that "Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January."
Political football? You bet, says Lee Rosenbaum, who writes about the arts for The Wall Street Journal. In her blog, CultureGrrl, she says a show like this could be too controversial for a federal institution.
"Most of its artists are down the middle of the fairway: big-name American artists like Eakins, Bellows, Hartley, O'Keeffe even," says Rosenbaum. "The problem is that it's such an easy target when they're looking for cuts, when they're looking for differences with the administration, to look at a federal institution — which the National Portrait Gallery is — and try to make that into a big issue."
A spokesperson for the Smithsonian says that since the show opened on Oct. 30, the National Portrait Gallery has received only one complaint from a visitor.
Sullivan says the rest of the exhibition will remain open until mid-February.
This is a still from the supposedly offending video.