Since the November election, there has been a lot of foolish talk from pundits convinced that the new, Tea Party-infused Republican-controlled House of Representatives will concentrate on its pet economic issues and leave the culture wars on the back burner. Think again. This week, it took exactly one threat from House speaker-in-waiting John Boehner to persuade the man in charge of the Smithsonian Institution to remove an item from an art exhibit that had offended the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which is dedicated to censoring speech and art it deems offensive to Christians in general and Catholics in particular.
Boehner had warned the Smithsonian to “be prepared to face tough scrutiny” under the new Republican majority. Just like that, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough caved and removed a video with an 11-second image of ants crawling on a crucifix, in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery exploring the influence of the homoerotic in American portraiture. The exhibition, titled “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” has been on view since Oct. 30, spanning homoerotic influences on American art from Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent to Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.
The image of the decaying crucifix, according to Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight, was “intended to lament the failure of many Christians to act with compassion in the AIDS pandemic’s early years.” The video was made 23 years ago by the late David Wojnarowicz, contemplating his own prospective death at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Again, the image that so incensed Boehner, Rep. Eric Cantor and the Catholic League occupied 11 seconds of one video in a large exhibition devoted primarily to major American painters.
It’s no coincidence that there were no complaints about this exhibition until an article appeared Nov. 29th on the right-wing online Cyber News Service, founded by L. Brent Bozell III, a nephew of the late conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr., and a member of the advisory board of the Catholic League. The author of the article was one Penny Starr, who had previously blasted the Smithsonian for not including creationism in a science exhibition at the Museum of Natural History. Just imagine: a science exhibition failed to include an anti-scientific religious story about the creation of the universe.
Also, Boehner and Cantor did not merely demand that the crucifix image be removed–they wanted the entire exhibition closed. Given the history of western art since classical Greece, to suggest that homoerotic themes in art are unimportant–and that to explore them in an art exhibit is intended as an insult to Christians–is as ridiculous as it would be to suggest that Christian themes are somehow unimportant in western art. In fact, there are ignorant Christian right blowhards who suggest that atheists are hypocritical if they love certain works of art art with Christian themes. But for people who want to censor art and responses to art, everything is ideological. These are descendants of the same people who wanted to put fig leaves on the nude paintings and sculpture of the Renaissance–whether the offending body parts were considered pagan or Christian.
The truly disturbing element in this whole epsiode goes far beyond art or the well-known attitudes of the Christian right toward gays. The impact of this one online piece by a writer who also advocates religious propaganda in science exhibitions is yet another example of the poisonous power of the far-right blogosphere–immediately followed up, of course, by FoxNews. That Boehner and Cantor responded immediately suggests that the Republicans are going to find plenty of room for their religious and cultural agenda while pursuing their economic agenda. That the Smithsonian bowed to the Republicans’ not-so-veiled threat of appropriations cuts sets, at the very least, a bad example for other government officials.
Down the road, the Republicans will surely turn their attention to appropriations for the National Institutes of Health, involved not only in stem cell research but in other kinds of studies that might inflame the Christian right; the Department of Education, which supports the teaching of mainstream science in public schools; and the Department of Health and Human Services, which has jurisidiction over federal funding for sex education programs. I can easily see the new Congress holding up vital appropriations bills in order to jettison specific appropriation for any project that violates the doctrines of the Christian right. If they make this much fuss about an 11-second video imagine, imagine what they might do to an entire high school science curriculum. Is anyone going to stand up to these bullies?
More On Faith and Hide/Seek controversy:
The God Vote: Interviews with National Portrait Gallery Director Martin Sullivan, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Transformers gallery’s Victoria Reis