Portrait Gallery removes crucifix video from exhibit after complaints

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010

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.

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.

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.

The skirmish over the video could forecast a renewed battle over arts funding when the Republican-led House takes over in January.

In the 1990s, Congress was embroiled in a debate over the National Endowment for the Arts. The agency lost 40 percent of its funding after many politicians were outraged over 1989 exhibits of the work of photographers Robert Mapplethorpe, who focused on homoerotic subjects, and Andres Serrano, who submerged a crucifix in his own urine and took a photo of the composition that he named "Piss Christ."

The era also saw an uproar over a 1999 show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art that included a painting of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung. New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani lost a political battle to take away the museum's funding.

The Smithsonian defended the current show and Wojnarowicz's work. "The artist was very angry about AIDS and he was using that style to create a statement about suffering. His approach was based on a lot of imagery that is very Latin American, and it can be garish and unsettling," said Sullivan.

News reports and calls were becoming a distraction to the major themes of the show, he said.

"The calls and e-mails are suggesting that this was deliberately offensive on the part of the Smithsonian and we had it up during the Christmas holidays to be deliberately sacrilegious," Sullivan said.

The decision to remove the video was made after Sullivan consulted with Richard Kurin, a Smithsonian undersecretary, and representatives of the offices of government affairs and communications.

The Catholic League objected to the "homoerotic images" and said the exhibition offended Christians. Donohue, in an interview Tuesday after the video was removed, said he had watched it on YouTube and that "the material is vile."

He called on the House and Senate appropriations committees to reconsider future funding for the Smithsonian.

"My immediate concern has been relieved. But this is hate speech," Donohue said. "It is designed to insult. This is a sad commentary on the judgment of the Smithsonian."

As part of the Smithsonian, the gallery receives public funds. Overall, the Smithsonian gets about 70 percent of its annual budget from the federal government, but it does not use that money for exhibitions.

Kurin, who also viewed the video Tuesday, said: "We are sensitive to what the public thinks about our shows and programs. We stand behind the show. It has strong scholarship with great pieces by artists who are recognized by a whole panoply of experts. It represents a segment of America."

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