Monday, December 6, 2010

Controversy at the National Portrait Gallery

As you may know, the National Portrait Gallery is featuring an exhibit entitled, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” The exhibit opened on October 30 and will run through February 13, and it is the first major museum exhibition that focuses on LGBT themes that span over the past century. Last week, officials at the Gallery removed a four-minute video created by David Wojnarowicz, which depicts ants crawling over a crucifix – the artist claims the film is a commentary on the pain and suffering caused by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Catholic League president William Donohue called the piece “hate speech,” and he urged the House and Senate appropriations committees to reconsider future funding for the Smithsonian Institution. Additionally, the presumptive incoming House speaker John Boehner added to the criticism saying that the exhibit is a “misuse of taxpayer money.” Boehner’s official statement about the exhibit also said that “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.” Other conservative leaders and organizations added to the fray, suggesting that the exhibit was a deliberate assault on Christianity, especially during the Holiday Season.

In response to this pushback, Smithsonian Institution officials removed the film, stating that they did not intend “to be offensive by showing the work,” and that by removing it, they could “better focus on the exhibit’s strengths.” Museum officials said they “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.”

We encourage you to take the time to read about this incident, watch the video, and decide for yourself if this was anti-LGBT censorship or a museum responding to legitimate concerns over a potentially offensive video.

If you would like to weigh in on the issue with the National Portrait Gallery you may contact the follow people:

• Martin Sullivan, the Director of the National Portrait Gallery (
• Richard Kurin, Undersecretary for the Arts and Humanities at the Smithsonian Institution (
• Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (

And please use the comments section to let us know what you think!


Dave Parker said...

I feel the actions of the Smithsonian are appropriate. Many Christians will feel that ants crawling over a crucifix is sacriligious; sinc the Smithsonian is for all our people, it would seem prudent and fair to consider their feelings.

Dave Parker

Pastor Rob said...

To put my following comments in conext...

I am an ordained Christian pastor in a mainline Protestant tradition and a former Roman Catholic "religious" who prepared for the priesthood and I was, years ago, the Director of Religious Education at a Roman Catholic parish and, full time, at a Roman Catholic school.

My degrees and studies are from both Roman Catholic and Protestant institutions and I have served a number of congregations either on the pastoral staff or as senior pastor. I've taught in Higher Education as Adjunct Faculty.

The image may be jarring, but I did not find it particularly offensive. From the small clip I was able to see, I am not sure how the images reflected the pain and suffering those who live with AIDS, but perhaps the artist makes that more clear in context of his entire video.

Often times things seen as sacred when juxtaposed with things seen as profane can make a point which we may not always think about or see. It can, by shock value, sometimes spur discussion and reflection. Just because something is offensive to certain segments of our society or our faith community, does not mean it should be censored.

The Catholic League, which filed the complaint, is an extremely conservative activist group within Roman Catholic circles. It is not surprising that this was the group that filed the complaint.

The cross, in itself, is an image of the sacred for many of us -- myself included. It is, in itself, not holy. It reminds us and represents for many of us something holy, but in itself, it is an art piece.

I probably would not ever portray ants crawling over a crucifix in an art piece that I was doing as part of a sermon or religious work.

Jesus, as portrayed in the Christian Scriptures, often challenged notions of the sacred in his parables and in his actions, to make moral points. This, of course, offended the religious leaders of his day who saw Jesus and his followers as profaning the sacred traditions of the Jewish faith and those challenges are now seen as wise and holy teachings from the Savior.

Was the artist/videographer prophetic, probably not. But like many things reported in the press (and I still work as a journalist in addition to my pastoral work), we're only seeing one side of it, a clip out of context, as released by Associated Press and on the Washington Post website. Maybe in the broader context, I, too, would be offended; maybe not, but perhaps the images and ideas would spark reflection and discussion -- and that might be a very good thing.

Michael van leeuwen said...

The Smithsonian should champion it's strength as a gallery inclusive of all facets of America vis s vis freedom of speech, and not open itself to further criticisms vis a vis preferential religious favouritism! This us outrageous!!

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