Correction to This Article
This article on a controversial exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery incorrectly referred to the Cybercast News Service, which posted a story online about the artwork in question, as the Christian News Service

Transformer shows banned video, as debate over museum's censorship rages

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Thursday, December 2, 2010

The controversial work of video art that the National Portrait Gallery removed from its current exhibition on gender identity reappeared elsewhere on Wednesday: in the front window of the Transformer Gallery near Logan Circle.

As an act of defiance, the gallery president, puzzled and angered like many in Washington's art community, presented "A Fire in My Belly" by David Wojnarowicz to any passersby on P Street NW. James Alefantis, the Transformer president, is showing a continuous loop of the banned four-minute artwork - with a few seconds in which ants crawl across a crucifix - and promised to run it for 24 hours. Late Wednesday, the gallery had secured rights from Tom Rauffenbart, executor of the artist's estate, to show the entire 30-minute original version of the artwork, which it will begin screening Thursday.

"I only wish David were alive, he would tear these censors apart," Rauffenbart said.

Other artists took to the streets, specifically the sidewalk outside the Portrait Gallery. A text message urged people to gather. Adam Griffiths, a 28-year-old artist from Takoma Park, wore handcuffs and held a mirror with the words "PUT IT BACK" written on its face. He was joined by Adrian Parsons, 28, of Washington, who carried a sign that read "National Censorship Gallery." A group of local artists has scheduled a protest outside the museum for Thursday night.

Inside the National Portrait Gallery on Wednesday, Director Martin E. Sullivan was inundated with calls and e-mails as he defended the removal of the video, reiterating that the museum had eliminated a distraction from an important exhibit and that no further changes were planned. His comments were seconded by three members of the Smithsonian Board of Regents: Chair Patricia Q. Stonesifer, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

Stonesifer offered that she had seen the show three times but had not viewed the video. "This is an important show with excellent scholarship and I hope that other visitors will learn from it as I did," she wrote in an e-mail.

Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough directly addressed the outcry late Wednesday night in an e-mail to all Smithsonian employees. "Most of the recent attention about the exhibition has focused on 11 seconds of a four-minute video clip, perceived by some to be anti-Christian and intentionally provocative. Neither description could be further from the truth. However, it was clear that this video was detracting from the entirety of the exhibition," Clough said, adding that he understood the criticism of that decision.

The American Association of Museums, based in Washington, said the Portrait Gallery did the right thing in deciding to pull the video in question. "We concur that it should not distract from the other thoughtful and provocative work in this important exhibition. However, we regret the controversy surrounding the excellent show," said Ford W. Bell, the group's president, in an e-mail.

Across town on Capitol Hill, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, started the day on "Fox and Friends" saying taxpayers' dollars should not be wasted with "kinky and questionable art." He dismissed the fact that the exhibit was created with private funds. "To say it is privately funded is a joke," Kingston said. The public money the Smithsonian receives supports salaries and building costs. Kingston added that the federal funds that support 70 percent of the Smithsonian budget "should be put under the magnifying glass."

Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for much of the country's arts funding, said that he, too, initially found the video "somewhat distasteful."

"But," Moran added, "I find the idea that it is being censored out of the exhibit more distasteful."

"The whole point is that we should not be censoring," he said. "We should be discussing."


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