- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 30, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery quickly removed a video Tuesday that was part of an exhibit after complaints from a Catholic group that the images were sacrilegious.

Catholic League President Bill Donohue said the video by artist David Wojnarowicz depicting ants crawling on a crucifix was “hate speech” and designed to insult Christians.

After he was alerted to the piece Monday night by a New York Post reporter, Donohue began a campaign to urge Congress to cut public funding for the Smithsonian museum complex, he told The Associated Press.

“This is not the first time the Smithsonian has offended us,” he said. “I’m going to cast my net much wider. Why should the government pay for this? … How dare they take our money to fund attacks on (our religion).”

The Smithsonian receives public funding for its staff and facilities, but its exhibits are funded privately.

It’s unusual for the Smithsonian to bow to public complaints so quickly, and curators were aware the exhibit could be controversial. Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said the museum is responsive to its public audience but will stand behind the overall exhibit. The piece in question was on a video kiosk, and visitors had to call it up to view it. It was not a dominant part of the exhibit.

Donohue said his group has objected in the past to an article in Smithsonian magazine that he said was anti-Catholic and also to the museum featuring the work of artist Andres Serrano in 1996 because he had created a piece years earlier that placed a crucifix in his urine.

National Portrait Gallery Director Martin Sullivan said in a statement about the current video that Wojnarowicz’s intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. He said the museum did not intend to offend anyone.

“I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious,” Sullivan said.

The video was made when the artist was suffering with AIDS in Mexico in the 1980s, Sullivan said. Part of the idea is that humans are made in Christ’s image and that “we’re all going back into the earth, that we’re decaying,” he said.

“If you look at Latin American art and imagery, really over time there are a lot of portrayals of Christian iconography with suffering, agony and death,” Sullivan said.

The piece is part of the first major museum exhibit to show how sexual orientation and gender identity have shaped American art. The exhibit of 105 works is on view through February.

Portrait Gallery spokeswoman Bethany Bentley said attention on the video “has become a distraction to the larger themes of the exhibition.” No visitors complained about the exhibit the day after Thanksgiving, one of the museum’s busiest days of the year, she said.

When told the Smithsonian removed the video, Donohue said he was “relieved they made the right decision” and that the removal relieves his objections “a great deal.” He said he did not object to the exhibit as a whole but specifically to parts he considered anti-Christian.

In the past, the New York-based Catholic League has protested an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum that included a portrait of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by elephant dung. Then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called for city funding to the museum to be frozen, but a judge later ruled the move violated the First Amendment.

Donohue said he didn’t believe the artwork at the Smithsonian was intended to portray an AIDS patient.

“If they’re concerned about making a statement about AIDS, they could have chosen a better way to do it instead of insult us,” he said. “I have more respect for art than these people do apparently.”

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Online:

Catholic League: http://www.catholicleague.org/

National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.si.edu/