Huffpost Politics
Jason Linkins Headshot

GOP-Led Smithsonian Controversy Will Likely Make Controversial Artists Better-Known

Posted: Updated:

I was wondering when the shiny new GOP House majority might get down to some old-school funnin' and gunnin' over The Stuff That Upsets Them In The Culture, and as it turns out, we're not going to even wait for the lame-duck session to end before we commence this quackery. Incoming House Speaker John Boehner heard that some art he didn't like was being exhibited over at the Smithsonian, started squawking about it, and now the art is getting... well, moved to another space in Washington.

In case you haven't been following along, here's the backstory: the National Portrait Gallery has, since October 30, been featuring an exhibition called "HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." Per the Gallery's description:

"Hide/Seek" considers such themes as the role of sexual difference in depicting modern America; how artists explored the fluidity of sexuality and gender; how major themes in modern art--especially abstraction--were influenced by social marginalization; and how art reflected society's evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment.

The exhibit itself contains precisely the sort of stuff that riles up the angry blood of the dyed-in-the-wool culture warriors. There's Georgia O'Keefe, who forced them all to see vaginas in every rosebush. There's Keith Haring, whose artwork suggested that the LGBT community was entitled to some sort of civil rights. And I see that among the exhibition's funders, you have the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation -- a name that inflames the culture warriors from way, way back.

But, as I pointed out, this exhibition has been happily ensconced at the NPG for a long time. Why freak out about it now? Well, the foundation of the complaint seems to be themed around the War On Christmas -- at the center of the complaint is a video work by David Wojnarowicz entitled "A Fire In My Belly", which depicts the image of Jesus Christ covered in ants. Baiting the Drudge-hook that brought all of this to the fore is this article on the righty Cybercast News Service, which called "Hide/Seek" a "Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit".

But beyond that, the Congressional GOP outrage over the matter is also steeped in a competing exhibition of abstract expressionism: deficit peacockery. Witness as the Smithsonian kerfuffle shows up in Ben Shapiro's explanation of how easy it is to cut spending:

We know that it isn't tough to cut spending. This week alone, for example, the federally-funded Smithsonian Institution spent cash stocking its National Portrait Gallery with pictures of Ellen DeGeneres clutching her naked bosom, penises, and nude brothers making out -- all of this in order to show America how gays and lesbians "struggle for justice ... [attempting to] claim their full inheritance in America's promise of equality, inclusion and social dignity."

Over at Media Matters, Jamison Foser points out the obvious:

The Smithsonian does not use government money to fund exhibitions. The exhibit in question was funded by private-sector contributions. And even if it had been funded with government money, its total cost -- $750,000 -- would represent about 0.00002 percent of the federal budget. But, again, the exhibit wasn't funded by the government, which means that in arguing that it's easy to cut spending, Ben Shapiro successfully identified an exhibit that constitutes exactly 0.0 percent of the federal budget. With sharp minds like Shapiro's at work, the deficit will be gone in no time!

Mind you, this all comes during the same week that the GOP has drawn a line in the sand, demanding a full extension of the Bush-era tax cuts that will necessarily balloon the budget deficit. So there's as real a need to pretend to care about cutting the budget as there is to prosecute the "War On Christmas."

But that's beside the point, because the exhibition itself actually has not been cut. The only thing the Smithsonian has done is to remove a single work from the exhibition: the aforementioned "Fire In My Belly". And that decision appears to have been made unilaterally by the Secretary of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, over the objections of NPG Director Martin Sullivan. As Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes reports:

Clough "was out of town he was consulted on the phone," St. Thomas said. "The key people physically in the room [when the decision was made] Richard Kurin and Martin Sullivan. The Secretary does stand by the exhibition. The only change is the four-minute video." Sullivan told the New York Times that the exhibition would stay on view and that no other pieces would be removed.

A source told MAN that Sullivan opposed the removal of the work but that Clough insisted upon it. "I'm not privy to the conversation they had," St. Thomas said. "I don't know what happened in the course of the conversation."

The Smithsonian refused to make Clough available for an interview. St. Thomas referred all questions to the National Portrait Gallery.

Clough's drawing criticism for his decision all the same, but it looks to me like he directed his underlings to perform an interesting conflict-resolution gambit. Faced with the demand to remove the exhibition entirely, Clough targeted a single controversial work for removal, ordered it removed, allowed the people at the gallery the opportunity to save face, and then he went dark. The net effect is that the heat, as far as the Smithsonian is concerned, is off. And if folks like Shapiro are out there declaring "victory" in this matter, Clough's gamble looks like it's going to pay off.

Of course, that might be cold comfort to Wojnarowicz's estate and fans, who was made to fall on the sword. But all is not lost there, either. As the Washington City Paper's Kriston Capps reports, the Wojnarowicz video will be installed at the Transformer Gallery instead, where it will hang in the window of the gallery's P Street storefront. Talk about exposure!

Today, Capps points out that what typically happens when the conservative culture warriors go out hunting scalps, is that they make their targets more famous than they were in the first place. We have Jesse Helms to thank for our awareness of the work of Andres Serrano. Chris Ofili might have been just a blip on the horizon were it not for Rudy Giuliani. Now, thanks to John Boehner, I've heard of Wojnarowicz. And his targeted work will draw new attention at, and to, the Transformer Gallery. And a NPG exhibit that's been open for a month will get a holiday-season boost as well. As Capps kicks it:

A new front opens in the War Against Christmas; Republicans pledge tough scrutiny to ensue. Harsh--but if history is any guide, the Smithsonian has nothing to fear in the way of actual, significant, financial reprisals. Christ and his kin have endured dung, urine, and now ants (this is to say nothing of the crucifixion). Art can survive the GOP.

If John Boehner intends to keep stimulating this sector of the economy in this fashion, all I can say is: keep it up!

RELATED:
Bulls on Parade: How the GOP Picks (and Loses) Its Battles [Washington City Paper]

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not? Also, please send tips to tv@huffingtonpost.com -- learn more about our media monitoring project here.]

Around the Web

Ant-covered Jesus sparks controversy, threats at Smithsonian's National ...

NY Times, Wash. Post turn to homophobic Donohue for comment on Smithsonian art

What Brent Bozell's Smithsonian crusade reveals about the Media Research Center

Register To Vote