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National Portrait Gallery Bows to Pressure Over Exhibition, Pulls Piece, Leaves No One Happy in the Process

Fresh off news of their potential troubles with the government thinking over if they should make them start charging, the Smithsonian has again found itself at odds with the powers that be. The National Portrait Gallery folded to pressure this week from both Republican members of the House of Representatives and the Catholic League and removed a video by artist David Wojnarowicz from their exhibition, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” The parties were upset by the imagery in the video, chiefly a scene wherein ants crawl across a crucifix. The Catholic League’s always-bosterous Bill Donohue also threw in that his organization believed that the whole exhibition was “replete with homoerotic images” and called Wojnarowicz’s piece “hate speech,” then later gloated after it had been pulled, adding what seems like the standard go-to anymore: “Let them next invite an artist to put their bugs on an image of Muhammad and then explain to Muslims that they never meant to offend them.” After pulling the piece, Martin Sullivan, the director of the gallery, issued a very short press release (pdf), saying:

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. It was not the museum’s intention to offend. We have removed the video.

With this timid response and the almost immediate backing down, the left has chided the Smithsonian for succumbing to the pressure, in particular for allowing itself to be bullied by politicians like John Boehner and Eric Cantor, who had both spoken out about the exhibition. The People for the American Way issued a statement condemning the move, saying, “These museums are an educational resource for the American people, not a political mouthpiece for the majority opinion.” So either way they move, the Smithsonian is catching heat. If there’s anything positive that’s come from this, it’s that DC’s Transformer Gallery immediately offered to host Wojnarowicz’s piece, which it now has on display. It has also pushed the gallery to put together a march protesting the move, which begins at their space and will end at the National Portrait Gallery, starting at 5:30pm today.

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