Under Pressure, National Portrait Gallery Removes 'Ant Crucifix' Video

Did John Boehner and Eric Cantor just become art censors?

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On Tuesday, the National Portrait Gallery removed a video from its exhibit Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. The video, by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, is a four-minute clip from a 1987 work called "A Fire in My Belly," and includes an 11-second sequence that shows a small crucifix lying on the ground with ants crawling over it. The Catholic League has characterized this portion of the video as "hate speech," and prominent conservatives, including Representative Eric Cantor and a spokesman for Representative John Boehner, have spoken out against it. The Portrait Gallery's decision to remove the "Fire" clip from its exhibit is largely seen as a result of political pressure, and many are wondering what kind of precedent this incident sets.

  • The Objections  CNSNews, which brought the exhibit to national attention, quotes Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Rep. Boehner, as saying, "American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy... 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 at a time when one in every 10 Americans is out of work and our children's future is being threatened by debt." Meanwhile, Rep. Cantor called the work "an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season" and called on the museum to "uphold common standards of decency."
  • The Threat  Matthew Newton at Thought Catalog quotes Smith's statement--"Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January when the new majority in the House moves to end the job-killing spending spree in Washington"--and adds his own reading: "Not surprisingly, as seen in most instances in history when tough guys threaten art nerds, the latter quickly gave in."
  • We Can't Start Sanitizing Museums, argues Blake Gopnik at The Washington Post. "If every piece of art that offended some person or some group was removed from a museum, our museums might start looking empty - or would contain nothing more than pabulum. Goya's great nudes? Gone. The Inquisition called them porn." Gopnik writes that "one point of museums, and of contemporary art in general, is to test where lines get drawn and how we might want to rethink them. A great museum is a laboratory where ideas get tested, not a mausoleum full of dead thoughts and bromides. In America no one group - and certainly no single religion - gets to declare what the rest of us should see and hear and think about. Aren't those kinds of declarations just what extremist imams get up to, in countries with less freedom?"
  • When Did Ants Become Sacrilegious?  Wonkette's Jack Stuef foams at the mouth, just a little. "It's crazy how when a crucifix is on the ground a few ants will walk on it! It is so crazy that this is probably currently happening with the approximately 5.7 trillion Jesuses and saints and other Christian figures people put OUTSIDE in their front yards or whatever. And you know what happens to Christmas trees at Christmas tree farms? Ants walk on those too! This is all VERY OFFENSIVE and a plot by the ants/Smithsonian to ruin Jesus’s birfday party."
  • Get Your Priorities Straight, Guys  "So, let's see," writes Michael Jones at Change.org. "We've got a war in Afghanistan, crippling unemployment, violence between North and South Korea, a potential nuclear arms treaty with Russia ... and Eric Cantor and John Boehner want to focus on scolding the Smithsonian for a piece of artwork about AIDS victims?"
  • Government Should Not Be Doing This, writes the libertarian economist Jeffrey Miron. "If Boehner and Cantor want to oppose all government funding of art, I will cheer them from the highest rooftops. But they are not taking a principled stance here; they are helping the government dictate what constitutes art.  That is bad for freedom, and bad for art."
  • Hmm, Are You Sure This Is About Jesus and Not Homosexuality?  Maura Judkis at TBD points out that Hide/Seek "is the first major museum exhibition to address gay and lesbian identity in the arts." Blake Gopnik declares that "this fuss is about the larger topic of the show: Gay love, and images of it."
  • Love That Eighties Nostalgia!  "Is it the 80s?" wonders Choire Sicha at The Awl. "Between this and Homeland Security bizarrely seizing rap websites without notice (most likely going way out of bounds to do so, and some old-school weirdness with the NYPD—oh and noted jurist Richard Posner straight-up declaring that 'the problem of priests' sexually molesting boys would be solved if priests were allowed to marry and if women could be priests,' because, what, sorry, child-molesting priests are repressed gays?—it's feeling like a rather retrograde season of culture wars!"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.