WP on Outgoing Smithsonian Secretary: ‘Cowardly Decision’ to Remove Ants on Jesus Video

By Penny Starr | December 31, 2013 | 2:35pm EST

An ant-covered Jesus/crucifix in “A Fire in My Belly” video, part of the ‘Hide/Seek’ exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in 2010. (CNSNews.com/Penny Starr)

(CNSNews.com) – In a Dec. 13 profile of outgoing Smithsonian Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough, art critic Philip Kennicott called the order Clough gave three years ago to remove from a National Portrait Gallery exhibit a video that included images of ants crawling over a crucified Christ and of male genitals a “cowardly decision.”

Referring to Clough’s predecessor Lawrence Small, Kennicott wrote in the Washington Post: “After a period of imperial leadership that reflected the larger and crass sense of entitlement during an era of reckless economic speculation, Clough brought homespun decency to the institution, but he didn't bring much vision or courage.”

“Smithsonian insiders say he surrounded himself with an inner circle, and while he was approachable, he didn't often put himself in a position to be approached,” Kennicott wrote. “But it was his hasty and cowardly decision to censor a 2010 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery for which he will be remembered.”

“Reacting to a tempest whipped up by the Catholic League, and exploited by some conservative congressmen, Clough removed a video by artist David Wojnarowicz (deemed ‘sacrilegious’ by self-appointed monitors of such things) from an exhibition that examined same-sex themes at the National Portrait Gallery.”

The caption under a photograph of Clough states: “Wayne Clough cleaned up the Smithsonian’s governance after Lawrence Small’s misdeeds, but he caved to lawmakers who objected to a work of art.”


Outgoing Smithsonian Institution Director G. Wayne Clough. (AP)

CNSNews.com published a story on Nov. 29, 2010 about the Christmas season exhibit, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” which was described on a plaque at the NPG as “the first major exhibition to examine the influence of gay and lesbian artists in creating modern American portraiture.”

The CNSNews.com article on the exhibit included the description of an edited 4-minute video of David Wojnarowicz’s 30-minute film entitled “A Fire in My Belly.”

“The four-minute version of the video shown in the exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery shows, among other images, ants crawling over the image of Jesus on a crucifix, two halves of a loaf of bread being sewn together, the bloody mouth of a man being sewn shut, a hand dropping coins, a man undressing, a man's genitals, a bowl of blood, and mummified humans,” the 2010 article states.

The exhibit also featured photographs of brothers kissing and Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts. One piece is made from the ashes of a cremated man who died of AIDS.

Reaction to the CNSNews.com article came from many sources, including the Catholic League and Republican leadership in Congress.

On Nov. 30, CNSNews.com published an article about the then-Speaker-to-Be John Boehner (R-Ohio) and then-Majority Leader-to-be Eric Cantor (R-Va.) calling for the entire exhibit to be closed.

CNSNews.com asked Boehner and Cantor if the show should continue or be cancelled. Both said it should be cancelled.

Video image from "A Fire in My Belly" at the National Portrait Gallery. (Photo: CNSNews.com)

“American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy,” Boehner’s spokesman Kevin Smith told CNSNews.com in 2010. “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.”

“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,” Smith said.

When asked to clarify what exactly Boehner meant by calling on the Smithsonian to “correct” their mistake with the exhibit, Smith responded in an e-mail that Boehner wanted the exhibit “cancelled.”

“This is an outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season,” Cantor said in 2010. “When a museum receives taxpayer money, the taxpayers have a right to expect that the museum will uphold common standards of decency.

“The museum should pull the exhibit and be prepared for serious questions come budget time,” Cantor said.

The Smithsonian Institution has an annual budget of $761 million, 65 percent of which comes from the federal government, according to Linda St. Thomas, the Smithsonian's chief spokesperson, said in the Nov. 29 CNSNews.com article.

Blood in bowl and splashed blood in image from "A Fire in My Belly" video at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in 2010. (CNSNews.com/Penny Starr)

The National Portrait Gallery itself received $5.8 million in federal funding in fiscal year 2010, according to St. Thomas. It also received $5.8 million in federal funding in fiscal 2009, according to the museum’s annual report. The gallery’s overall funding in that year was $8 million.

In a second article published on Nov. 30 – less than 24 hours after CNSNews.com published the story about the Hide and Seek exhibit – the NPG announced that the Wojnarowicz’s video was being pulled from the exhibit.

Martin Sullivan, NPG director, issued the following statement on Nov. 30:

“’Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture’ is an exhibition of 105 works of art that span more than a century of American art and culture. One work, a four-minute video portrait by artist David Wojnarowicz (1987), shows images that may be offensive to some.

“The exhibition also includes works by highly regarded artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Thomas Eakins and Annie Leibowitz.

“I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious. In fact, the artist’s intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim.

Catalog book for 2010 exhibition at National Portrait Gallery, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." (Photo: Penny Starr/CNSNews.com)

“It was not the museum’s intention to offend. We are removing the video today.”

The exhibit was subsequently mounted at the Brooklyn Museum and the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington State, including Wojnarowicz’s edited video.

Two videos of “A Fire in My Belly” (one 13 minutes and the other 7 minutes) are now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art  (MOMA) in New York City but are not currently being exhibited, according to the museum’s press office.

Although Clough is stepping down from his post, another man responsible for mounting the Hide and Seek exhibit has been promoted. David Ward, who co-curated the exhibit with Jonathan Katz , was named senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery, according to the Washington Post.

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