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Ant-covered Jesus video removed from Smithsonian after Catholic League complains (video)

An excerpt from a version of the video 'A Fire in My Belly' by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, which the National Portrait Gallery removed from the show 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.'

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 12:00 AM

Officials at the National Portrait Gallery on Tuesday removed a work of video art depicting Christ with ants crawling over him after complaints from a Catholic organization and members of Congress.

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The four-minute video, created by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, had been on exhibit since Oct. 30 as part of a show on sexual difference in American portraiture.

The piece was called "hate speech" by Catholic League president William Donohue and a misuse of taxpayer money by a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the presumptive incoming House speaker.

Officials at the museum and the Smithsonian Institution, which includes the Portrait Gallery, said they had not intended to be offensive by showing the work and removed it to better focus on the exhibit's strengths.

"The decision wasn't caving in," said Martin E. Sullivan, the museum's director. "We don't want to shy away from anything that is controversial, but we want to focus on the museum's and this show's strengths."

An 11-second portion of the video shows a small crucifix covered with ants. The video is included in the exhibit, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture."

Boehner's spokesman, Kevin Smith, said in a statement that the congressman was monitoring the episode. "American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy," Smith said. "While the amount of money involved may be small, it's symbolic of the arrogance Washington routinely applies to thousands of spending decisions involving Americans' hard-earned money."

"Hide/Seek" is the first survey at a national museum to examine same-sex portraits and intimacy. Artists represented include contemporary names such as Andy Warhol and Annie Leibovitz as well as works from 19th-century artists including Thomas Eakins.

(THE POST'S REVIEW: 'Hide/Seek' finds frame for showing sexual identity)

Wojnarowicz, an artist in New York's East Village scene of the 1980s, was 37 when he died of AIDS in 1992.

The largest and most expensive exhibition in the Portrait Gallery's history, the show represented a significant change for a museum known for its staid portraits.

The exhibition, which opened Oct. 30, was funded by the largest number of individual donors for a Portrait Gallery show. The show, which cost $750,000, was also underwritten by foundations that support gay and lesbian issues.

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