On Nov. 30 the National Portrait Gallery, a sister organization of the Smithsonian Institution, pulled a video piece from its exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture one month after the exhibit opened after pressure from both the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; and congressmen.
The piece in question, a four-minute excerpt from Fire in My Belly by AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz, is a collage of images captured in Mexico, such as Mayan ruins, a man spitting fire, a marionette, cockfighting and a man masturbating. But it was an 11-second segment of ants crawling over a crucifix that prompted William Donohue, president of the Catholic League to condemn the film as "hate speech" against Christianity in a press release on Nov. 30.
The same day, Soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called for the cancellation of the exhibit, with his spokesman Kevin Smith saying, "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 in."
Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) called the piece "an outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season."
Just how much taxpayer money went into the exhibit? As for just the exhibit, an editorial in the Washington Post points out that all exhibits at the portrait gallery are funded by private donations. $750,000 in private funds was spent on Hide/Seek. Around $6 million a year in public funds goes towards caring for the private collections, employee salaries, building maintenance and security.
The question of hate speech in the piece is more debatable, however, in any piece of artwork, context is always important and absolutely necessary for criticism. A review by the NY Times provided the example of testimony Wojnarowicz gave against Donald Wildmon of the American Family Foundation in a lawsuit for misrepresenting his artwork. The work in question this time was Wojnarowicz's take on Guido Reni's 17th-century painting Christ Crowned With Thorns, in which Christ looks both agonized and ecstatic. Wojnarowicz's painting depicts this Christ with a heroin syringe in his arm.
In court he explained that he was struck by the rampant and rising use of hard drugs among people he knew and the self-destruction that resulted. He said that in his own upbringing as a Roman Catholic he'd been taught that Jesus took on the sufferings of all people in the world.
"I wanted to make a symbol that would show that he would take on the suffering of the vast amounts of addiction that I saw on the streets," Wojnarowicz testified.
Wojnarowicz made Fire in My Belly after his longtime lover Peter Hujar had died of AIDS and found out that he himself was H.I.V.-positive. Just as he was looking for a symbol of suffering and self sacrifice in his painting of Christ, he was most likely looking for those same qualities in his depiction of Christ in Fire in My Belly.
As a result of the actions by the portrait gallery, museums all over the U.S., (most recently, The Walker Art Center) have now begun showing Fire In My Belly, but the whole fiasco raises a question for both sides of the argument: If the crucifix had instead been a Qur'an or a depiction of Muhammad, would Rep. Boehner have issued such a threat, and would galleries even display such a video?