by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
A federally funded Smithsonian exhibit lauding the influence of gay and lesbian artists is coming under fire for presenting an ant-covered Jesus on the cross, male genitalia, naked men kissing and other “homoerotic” portraits.
CNSNews.com is reporting that the exhibit, which opened at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian on October 30, is called and is scheduled to run through the Christmas season. It is being hailed as the first major exhibition examining the influence of gay and lesbian artists in creating modern American portraiture.
According to a plague at the entrance to the exhibit, “‘Hide/Seek chronicles how, as outsiders, gay and lesbian artists occupied a position that turned to their advantage, making essential contributions to both the art of portraiture and to the creation of modern American culture.”
“This is an exhibition that displays masterpieces of American portraiture and we wanted to illustrate how questions of biography and identity went into the making of images that are canonical,” David C. Ward, a National Portrait Gallery (NGP) historian who is also co-curator of the exhibit, told CNS.
Two brief films that show edited versions of the videos, A Fire in my Belly and The Pink Narcissus, are also part of the exhibit.
The National Portrait Gallery’s description of the The Pink Narcissus, which was released in 1971 by James Bidgood calls the film “a surreal portrait of the youth’s emergence into gay life, his coming out symbolized by the metaphor of a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly.”
A Fire in My Belly was created by David Wojnarowicz, who died from AIDS in 1992, is a compilation of numerous images of loss, pain and death as a result of the AIDS epidemic. This film contains images of ants crawling over the image of Jesus on a crucifix, the bloody mouth of a man being sewn shut, a man undressing, a man’s genitals, a bowl of blood, and mummified humans.
The Smithsonian-published catalog of the exhibit contains quotes from Wojnarowicz’s 1991 book, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, in which he claims to daydream about shooting darts dipped in HIV-positive blood into the necks of politicians and expresses his enmity for “walking swastikas that wear religious garments.”
The “Hide/Seek” exhibit also features a portrait of two men kissing while one man holds a gun to the other’s chest. Another piece shows a man sitting in a wingback while chained and shackled to his horsewhip-wielding partner in a gross display of sado-masochism. A piece entitled “Charles Devouring Himself” mixes the cremated ashes of a AIDS sufferer who committed suicide with nail polish which is then used to paint a platter.
Despite the outrageous and graphic nature of the exhibit, Ward insisted that the museum carefully edited the films and other items for the museum audience. ” . . . (T)he curators and the museum were aware of our responsibility in introducing a difficult piece of work about an important subject in a way that respects the individual sensibilities of our public.”
When questioned about the ant-covered Jesus, Ward and co-curator Johnathan D. Katz, founder of the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale University, told CNS that the image “represents the lack of attention to Christian teachings in that Christian morality has been cast to the ground and the teachings of Jesus abrogated by speaking in his name.”
The controversial nature of the exhibit, coupled with the fact that the Smithsonian gets 65 percent of its annual income from taxpayers, is raising questions about how the public might have more input about the kinds of “art” and other items being displayed at the Smithsonian.
Smithsonian spokesperson Linda St. Thomas told CNS that federal funds are not used to pay for Smithsonian exhibits themselves, but are used to pay for the buildings, the care of collections exhibited at Smithsonian venues, and museum staff, including the salaries for curators of exhibits. Exhibits such as “Hide/Seek” are funded by private donations.
Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute and a former senior economist on the congressional Joint Economic Committee, told CNSNews.com, “If the Smithsonian didn’t have the taxpayer-funded building, they would have no space to present the exhibit, right? In my own view, if someone takes taxpayer money, then I think the taxpayers have every right to question the institutions where the money’s going.”
He went on to say: “Think about the Washington Post. They don’t have to publish every op-ed that they get, right? They own the platform. In this case [the Smithsonian Institution], the taxpayers own the platform and so the taxpayers should decide what is presented on that platform.”
Gary Scott, an economist who is a senior research fellow at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, had a similar view.
“Leaving aside the merit or lack of it in the exhibit itself, the notion that taxpayers don’t fund it is unpersuasive,” he said. “First, most of the overall budget derives from tax monies for the facility, and maintenance and staff. Second, the exhibit appears inside and is monitored by staff. Finally, if it was funded only by outside funding the exhibit would be outside in a snowdrift.”
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