12/01/2010 01:30 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Manufactured Outrage Over Smithsonian Art Exhibit

The third time's a charm for reporter and erstwhile museum critic Penny Starr.

In March, Starr complained that a Smithsonian exhibit asking "What Does It Mean to Be Human?" lacked "references to God, creationism, or pre-natal existence." In June, Starr was annoyed that a Library of Congress exhibit on Bob Hope "focuses more on politics than it does on the legacy of a movie star who used his talents to support the U.S. military around the world," ignoring that the exhibit focused on "performers, politics and pop culture."

Those didn't get much attention. But now, one of her gems of museum criticism has finally hit the jackpot. In a November 29 article, she writes:

The federally funded National Portrait Gallery, one of the museums of the Smithsonian Institution, is currently showing an exhibition that features images of an ant-covered Jesus, male genitals, naked brothers kissing, men in chains, Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, and a painting the Smithsonian itself describes in the show's catalog as "homoerotic."

The exhibit, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," opened on Oct. 30 and will run throughout the Christmas Season, closing on Feb. 13.

Bingo! Something about "homoerotic" and "ant-covered Jesus," combined with a mention of the Christmas season, seems to have struck the right nerve among right-wingers. Drudge linked to it, the Breitbart empire weighed in, and Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity ranted about it on Fox News. And it seems more than a little convenient that top congressional Republicans have told Starr they want the exhibit shut down, quickly followed by Starr's boss, the Media Research Center's Brent Bozell, demanding not just that the exhibit be killed but also that Congress investigate this "direct assault on Christianity."

As Starr acknowledged in her article, the exhibit -- like every Smithsonian exhibit -- is not paid for by taxpayer funds. But Bozell doesn't care because, as he wrote in one of his letters to congressional leaders, "[i]t is housed in a federal institution funded by the American people."

Aside from the manufactured-outrage aspect, there's also some anti-gay dog-whistling going on. From the National Portrait Gallery's description of the exhibit:

This is the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture. "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 exhibition begins with late nineteenth-century works by Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent and charts the twentieth century with major works by such American masters such as Romaine Brooks, Marsden Hartley, and Georgia O'Keeffe. The exhibition arcs through the postwar period with major paintings by Agnes Martin, David Hockney, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol. It continues through the end of the twentieth century with works by Keith Haring, AA Bronson, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres about life, love and death during the AIDS crisis, and charts the vigorous reassertion of lesbian and gay civil rights in the twenty-first.

In other words, there's a lot more in this exhibit than Starr or Bozell would have you think.

This, by the way, isn't the first time that Starr has complained about tax money being spent on gays -- in September, she wrote that the Richmond, Virginia, tourism bureau, "which is funded in part by hotel taxes, is promoting an initiative by local businesses to attract homosexuals to Virginia's capital."

The MRC's outrage machine had its desired effect; the gallery pulled the ants-on-Jesus video. But overlooked in the outrage is the fact that, as the Washington Post's Blake Gopnik points out, that clip lasts only 11 seconds in a four-minute video (edited down from the original 30-minute video) and, more importantly, it wasn't anti-Christian:

The irony is that [artist David] Wojnarowicz's reading of his piece puts it smack in the middle of the great tradition of using images of Christ to speak about the suffering of all mankind. There is a long, respectable history of showing hideously grisly images of Jesus -- 17th-century sculptures in the National Gallery's recent show of Spanish sacred art could not have been more gory or distressing -- and Wojnarowicz's video is nothing more than a relatively tepid reworking of that imagery, in modern terms.

The MRC's highly selective focus -- plucking an image out of context to score political points -- illustrates all too clearly just how manufactured the outrage is. This entire story seems calibrated more for immortality through Drudge and Breitbart and Fox News (and the resulting website hits that would generate) than presenting actual issues in a reasoned manner.

A version of this item first appeared at Media Matters.