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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

By Jacqueline Trescott
Thursday, December 2, 2010; C01

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."

Instead, Moran argued, the Portrait Gallery buckled under pressure from critics looking to exploit the artwork - only 11 seconds of which was considered objectionable - for personal and political gain.

Himself a Catholic, Moran said that Catholic League President William Donohue, who "implicitly condoned all the pedophilia that was going on in the church," should be using his energies to object to much more serious offenses against humanity.

Incoming speaker of the House John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) yesterday echoed Donohue's salvo, adding that the exhibit was a misuse of taxpayer dollars.

For Moran, that was an ominous sign.

"This new Congress has a bull's-eye on arts funding," he said. "I don't think there is any question they are going to target the NEA, the NEH and anything else that funds art."

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bishops had no position on the video in question, nor did she expect any position in the future. The Catholic Church usually does not get involved in local disputes but occasionally the Vatican's official news outlet, L'Osservatore Romano, weighs in on art matters. It didn't think much of Paduan artist Maurizio Cattelan's piece "Nona Ora," which portrayed Pope John Paul II crushed by a meterorite.

The Catholic League's Donohue continued to express his outrage despite the work's removal. In an interview, he recalled how he first heard of the exhibit when a New York Post reporter called him Monday night for comment. He then reviewed an article posted online by the Christian News Service, watched Wojnarowicz's video on YouTube for himself on Tuesday, and decided immediately to issue a statement deeming the work "hate speech." He also sent letters to the House and Senate, asking the appropriations committees to reconsider public funding of the Smithsonian Institution. He has not viewed the other works in "Hide/Seek."

"I am so tired of dealing with the artistic community and their hate speech against Christians, because every time this happens I'm told [the art] is complex and a matter of interpretation," says Donohue, who emphasized that he never asked for the video to be removed. "Look, if someone puts a swastika on a synaogue, that's not complex and not open to interpretation. . . . When the Smithsonian - with this prestige and federal funding - offends Catholics, I can't pretend it hasn't happened. The more established the source of the offense, the more likely it is we have to respond."

The reaction to and removal of the video stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the artist's intent, according to Wendy Olsoff, owner of P·P·O·W Gallery in New York, which represents the estate of David Wojnarowicz.

"David puts ants over coins, dollar bills, toy guns, toy soldiers, eyes - he used ants and animal imagery all the time," Olsoff says. "David believed the imagery of ants' society was a parallel to human society. He was trying to change our mythologies about capitalism and institutionalized religion, and trying to make a comparison to animals. It was not about Christ. It was just about institutionalized religion."

Olsoff says she will issue a press release that points to Wojnarowicz's writings, which she hopes will provide proper context. Besides planning to show the full 30-minute video starting Thursday, the Transformer Gallery is organizing a campaign to reinstate it in the exhibit. Organizers are drafting a letter to the Smithsonian, meeting Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the Transformer Gallery, and marching in protest to the National Portrait Gallery, according to Alefantis.

The museum staff on Wednesday was re-programming the kiosk that played the Wojnarowicz video. A seven-minute cut from "Pink Narcissus," about the fantasies of a young male prostitute, directed in 1971 by James Bidgood, will be ready soon.

Freelance writer Jessica Dawson and staff writers Dan Zak and Jason Horowitz contributed to this article.

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