December 1st, 2010
02:06 PM ET
By CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor Eric Marrapodi in Washington
The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery removed a controversial video Wednesday after drawing criticism that the piece was offensive to Christians.
A four-minute video clip by the late artist David Wojnarowicz was part of a larger exhibit titled "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," which looks at "sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture," according to gallery curators. Gender and sexuality are strong themes in the exhibition.
The clip, from Wojnarowicz's "A Fire in My Belly," included a scene showing ants crawling over a small crucifix.
The complete video of "A Fire in My Belly," is over 30 minutes long and includes masturbation and full frontal male nudity. Wojnarowicz, who was gay, died from AIDS in July of 1992.
His companion of seven years, Tom Rauffenbart, said Wedneday that while they never talked about Wojnarowicz's intent for the piece, he was "extremely disappointed they pulled this."
"I'm pretty angry about it. It doesn't surprise me, though. David was always controversial. I just wish he was alive," Rauffenbart told CNN.
Curators for the portrait gallery and media specialists from New York University's Fales Library, where the original work is housed, worked to edit down the video into a four-minute clip to include in the exhibition. While a small portion of the full frontal nudity was shown in the edited video, the sexually explicit portion was edited out.
But it was the ants on the crucifix that drew the ire of the Catholic League and politicians. "I didn't register any other objection with this exhibit, it's not my taste. But this is hate speech against Christians," William Donohue, president of the Catholic League told CNN.
Donohue said he did not personally view the exhibit or the offending video as it was presented. After being alerted to the matter by a reporter for the New York Post, he watched another edited version of "A Fire in My Belly" on YouTube, he said.
On Wednesday, CNN was able to view the version that had been pulled from the museum. Both the version on YouTube and the version shown at the museum featured several shots of a small crucifix being overrun by ants. The portion shown at the portrait gallery also showed someone sewing their lips shut, legless beggars in Mexico, silver coins falling in a dish of blood, and a single bloody eyeball on a string.
"Obviously there's a judgment call here," Donohue said. "Obviously there is a role for criticism of religion in art. But this (the crucifix scene) crossed the line."
Martin Sullivan, director of the gallery, said in a written statement the intent was not to offend Christians.
"I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious," he wrote. "In fact, the artist's intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. It was not the museum's intention to offend."
"Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" cost approximately $750,000 to put on and was done so using private donations, the Smithsonian said. The video in question appeared on a 17-inch touch-screen video kiosk with another video titled "Pink Narcissist." Attendees had to navigate the touch screen to see either video.
Over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend 22,000 people came through the exhibit. It opened in late October, and museum officials said prior to the media attention about the ants on the crucifix, they only received one complaint, regarding the sexual nature of the works.
The portrait gallery is part of the Smithsonian Institution museums, which are federally funded with taxpayer dollars.
Donohue sent a letter to the House and Senate appropriations committees asking them to "reconsider the propriety of funding the Smithsonian Institution." The House and Senate committees in part control how much money the museums receive.
"What gives the government the right to pick the pocket of the taxpayer to insult religion?" Donohue told CNN.
Donohue is not alone. There is a rising chorus of Republicans in Congress who are suggesting federal funds ought to be monitored more closely when given to the Smithsonian. the presumptive speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio; and House GOP Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia have both come out publicly with similar comments on the matter.
Rep. Dan Lungren of California is the ranking Republican on the House Administration Committee. He said in a written statement to CNN, "In light of this inappropriate use of funds, we plan to carefully review the process by which exhibits are selected by the primarily federally funded institution."
Lungren's staff said he had not seen the exhibit in person, saying the Smithsonian's vast collection makes it impossible to see everything firsthand. His staff also added that while the exhibit itself was funded privately, taxpayers were footing the bill for costs from the exhibit space to the electric bill.
Dianne Apostolos-Cappadona, professor of religious art at Georgetown University, said she disagreed with the museum's decision to remove the work. "This is a museum that receives public funding (but) an artist is supposed to have the ability to express what you're feeling and thinking and seeing. So that comes from whoever you are [as an artist]. It comes from within. It comes from the world you've been socialized in."
"When did the public become so narrowly defined? So are we only going to show (only) the work of heterosexual white males?" she asked.
Gallery director Sullivan spoke Wednesday with CNN's John King about the exhibit and the controversy.
"Art in general has always been an instrument through which society is kind of challenged to think about, 'Well, what do we truly believe in, what can we tolerate as a society?' So we feel that this exhibition is consistent with the mission that Congress gave the Portrait Gallery when it was created," Sullivan said.
He said museum officials were taken back by the criticism.
"The criticism, which was vigorous and aggressive, came almost entirely from people who had seen neither the exhibition or video, but who read certain accounts of it that got them convinced that this was intentionally a sacrilegious placement of a piece of work," Sullivan said.
"It was made in Mexico, the artist was very deeply influenced by the vivid Latin American imagery, which often has a lot of blood, a lot of violence in it. The religious element is a standard dime-store crucifix, which was set in the sand and, just as (with) decomposing bodies, there were ants crawling over it," Sullivan said.
Rauffenbart said the video and an accompanying still-photo component were created "around the time of AIDS crisis. There was no cure and people were dying all around us. Most of the images were directed toward that kind of thing."
Sullivan said the decision to pull the piece from the exhibit was difficult to make for the museum.
"The artist is dead. He died of AIDS, so we can not speak for him on what he intended. But the argument that the portrait gallery as a part of a museum complex was deliberately supporting a sacrilegious statement seemed to us a reason to say, 'OK, that was not the intent. We wish you would take a look at it.' But we would rather the largely and more important theme of the show continue to be available."
The full exhibit features works from 105 artists including Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Annie Leibowitz. At the beginning of the exhibit there is a sign that reads, "This exhibition contains mature themes." Sullivan said although the piece by Wojnarowicz was being removed, the sign will remain in place.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.