Score another one for Christianity. How else to definitively assess what happened at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery?
A little background for those of you who are not in the know. Over Halloween weekend, the renowned gallery in downtown Washington opened a privately financed exhibit titled "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" that featured a video by the late artist David Wojnarowicz.
The video, "A Fire in the Belly," includes scenes of ants crawling about the crucified body of Jesus Christ.
To be honest, I have neither seen the exhibit nor watched the 30-minute video in its entirety. But I did get the picture while watching a TV news program, and even then, I didn't particularly care to view any public or private "work of art" that makes such a despicable depiction.
After protestations from Americans who called the "art" sacrilegious, the gallery announced Tuesday that it had pulled the video, which, not surprisingly, had found a new home at a private gallery in Northwest Washington.
That is as it should be.
Martin Sullivan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, tried to explain the intentions of Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992.
"I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious," Mr. Sullivan said in a press release. "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."
Mr. Sullivan encouraged visitors to visit the exhibit online or at the gallery, but he also discouraged the voice of the public by directing comments to a P.O. box. Who has time these days to write letters, which can be tossed accidentally into the you-know-what with no record of ever having been received? E-mail would be easier (firstname.lastname@example.org) and would leave a time stamp. Some people might prefer to call (202/633-1000).
The National Portrait Gallery is a public museum funded with public dollars and sees an estimated 1 million pairs of feet passing through its doorways every year. Congress mustn't lose sight of that.
While somebody else's money paid for "Hide/Seek," the gallery's caretakers are beholden to the greenbacks appropriated on Capitol Hill.
Don't play hide-and-seek with our money.
Things could have been as Mr. Sullivan described them. Could be the museum didn't intend to offend. But that begs the question: Did the museum's officials and curators intend to glorify homosexuality?
And if not that question, then another.
Why, in heaven's name, is the National Portrait Gallery - get it? "portrait" - exhibiting works that depict Christ being defiled by ants? Didn't He suffer enough?
"A Fire in the Belly" is right where it should be, and if it travels the land, it should make the rounds of private boutiques and galleries in San Francisco, Soho and the like or elsewhere, as long as it doesn't land in any - any - forum that suckles tax dollars.
Some of the passers-by interviewed on TV said the video should open up discussions. But discussions about what? HIV/AIDS?
How can we openly discuss the disease and its deadly consequences when people who have the virus are considered "victims." People with diabetes or heart disease, prostate or breast cancer or measles or mumps, Tay-Sachs or sickle cell anemia aren't considered victims.
That Mr. Sullivan had to explain the artist's intentions suggests the museum's curatorial process lacks traditional cultural sensibilities or, worse, that those sensibilities were ignored.
In the end, officials at the National Portrait Gallery did the right thing. But let the "Hide/Seek" controversy serve as a cultural wake-up call to the Smithsonian and other public-private cultural projects: The devil is in the details.
- Deborah Simmons can be reached at email@example.com.
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