The Smithsonian Institution, the world famous group of 19 museums headquartered in Washington, D.C., says the recent removal of a four-minute video from an exhibition of art focused on gay issues does not reflect the organization’s overall support for the exhibition.
The video—“A Fire in My Belly” by David Wojnarowicz—was part of the National Portrait Gallery exhibit, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” which opened Oct. 30 and runs through Feb. 13, 2011. Wojnarowicz’s video, which was one of 105 works in the exhibit, was removed on Nov. 30 because it “was perceived by some to be anti-Christian,” the Smithsonian says in a written statement.
“The museum and the Smithsonian stand firmly behind the scholarly merit and historical and artistic importance of the exhibition,” the statement says. Nonetheless, James Bartlett, who was a member of the portrait gallery’s advisory panel at the time, resigned from that position in protest over removal of the video.
The video is described as containing a montage of religious images over a loud sound track, and includes an 11-second clip of a crucifix with ants crawling around and on it. Art critics and other artists have said the video depicts Wojnarowicz’s anger at clerics—specifically those in the Roman Catholic Church—for their positions on HIV/AIDs in the late 1980s. Wojnarowicz’s close friend, Peter Hujar, died of complications from AIDS in 1987, and Wojnarowicz learned he was HIV positive the same year. He died in 1992.
The video “generated a strong response from the public,” the Smithsonian says. “We removed it from the exhibition Nov. 30 because the attention it was receiving distracted from the overall exhibition, which includes works by American artists John Singer Sargent, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Annie Leibovite and Georgia O’Keeffe.”
Because those opposing the video include some members of Congress—including Reps. John Boehner, R-Ohio and Eric Cantor, R-Va.—the possibility Smithsonian officials succumbed to pressure from Capitol Hill has been raised. Congress controls 70 percent of the Smithsonian’s budget, and published reports say top institute officials have met with staffers who are concerned about speaking their opinions on the issue.
In addition, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) issued a statement saying, “It is extremely regrettable” that the National Portrait Gallery “Has been pressured into removing a work of art from its exhibition ‘Hide/Seek.’”
“More disturbing than the Smithsonian’s decision to remove this work of art is the cause: unwarranted and uniformed censorship from politicians and other public figures, many of whom, by their own admission, have seen neither the exhibition as a whole or this specific work.
“Discouraging the exchange of ideas undermines the principles of freedom of expression, plurality and tolerance on which our nation was founded. This includes the forcible withdrawal of a work of art from within an exhibition, and the threatening of an institution’s funding sources,” the AAMD statement says.
Smithsonian’s officials have responded to the AAMD statement, saying they “respectfully disagree with their conclusion,” and “the change (removal of the video) that was made was intended to clear up a misunderstanding, and help focus attention on the central theme of the exhibition, which is portraiture and the representation of gay and lesbian identities in American Art.”