Undue political pressure on a portrait gallery

Thursday, December 2, 2010; 9:23 PM

THE NATIONAL Portrait Gallery's succumbing to pressure to remove a video from an art exhibit is highly disappointing. Worse than disappointing are the politicians and self-appointed censors who are pressing the gallery to dismantle the entire exhibit and are using the controversy to threaten the museum's public funding.

The portrait gallery, an arm of the Smithsonian Institution, has been host to "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" since Oct. 30. The exhibit includes works depicting same-sex portraits by such artists as Andy Warhol, Georgia O'Keeffe and Annie Leibovitz. Among the 105 pieces in the original exhibit was "A Fire in My Belly," a four-minute film collage by David Wojnarowicz, who produced the film in the 1980s after his partner died of AIDS. The film contains an 11-second clip of ants crawling over a crucifix - an image The Post's art critic, Blake Gopnik, asserts could be understood as an expression of "the hideous, heart-rending loss of a loved one" who has been "defeated and cast in the dirt, without the strength even to defend himself from the tiniest of insects." According to the portrait gallery's director, the video was a secondary element in the exhibit and no one anticipated controversy.

But then the museum received e-mails and calls of complaint, culminating with the declaration by the president of the Catholic League that the video amounted to "hate speech." Soon-to-be House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) tagged the entire exhibit as "questionable," a misuse of "Americans' hard-earned dollars" and called for it to be shut down. Mr. Cantor warned the museum to "be prepared for serious questions come budget time." The gallery removed the video but has rightly resisted shuttering the exhibit as a whole.

Art is often controversial. It can provoke or infuriate just as easily as it can inspire and thrill. Disagreements abound over its very definition. Public sensibilities must be taken into account when taxpayer funds are in play, but the use of public dollars does not give lawmakers the right to micromanage or censor displays. Nor should the occasional dust-up be justification for threatened retribution against these valuable national assets. We hope Mr. Cantor's threats prompt many additional Washingtonians to visit the exhibit and judge for themselves.

For Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor to use this episode to grandstand about fiscal responsibility is particularly silly. All exhibits at the portrait gallery are funded by private donations; some $750,000 in private funds was spent to curate "Hide/Seek." Roughly $6 million a year in public funds - a pittance in fiscal terms - pays for care of the private collections, employee salaries, building maintenance and security. "Hide/Seek" should be a platform for cultural debate, not the target of a misguided political vendetta.

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