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The Smithsonian's Latest Censorship Scandal Is a Decades-Old Stunt from the Right-Wing Playbook

Artist David Wojnarowicz warred with conservatives 20 years ago before his death from AIDS. Is this seriously happening again?

Earlier this month, when the Catholic League and conservative Congress members blew up over David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly,” a 1987 video piece on exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, it was ostensibly because an image of a crucifix crawling with ants offended their sensibilities.

Filmed by the artist in Mexico during Dia de los Muertos and meant as a sanguine commentary on AIDS -- which took Wojnarowicz’s life in 1992 -- the crucifix was lying on the ground (hence the ants) near other icons of the day, left in homage and celebration of deceased loved ones. Though the Jesus clip lasted mere seconds, a flash in a video that also included found footage and a short sequence of a man stripping off his pants and masturbating, the Smithsonian capitulated to the conservative groups’ demands over the crucifix. Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough, against the wishes of NPG curators, removed the work from the group exhibit “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” widely seen as the first landmark-scale show celebrating the achievements of gays and lesbians in American art history.

 [Watch "A Fire in My Belly"]

The Smithsonian defended its position in a press release, stating that “A Fire in My Belly” was “perceived by some to be anti-Christian” and had “generated a strong response from the public” -- despite the fact that no one visiting the exhibit had complained before right-wing groups launched their crusade against the piece. “We removed it from the exhibition Nov. 30 because the attention it was receiving distracted from the overall exhibition,” continued the release, “which includes works by American artists John Singer Sargent, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Annie Leibovitz and Georgia O’Keeffe.”

Clough’s censorship of the piece in the context of a group exhibit called "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” not only reflected his cowardice -- he’s still not talking to journalists -- but his lack of understanding of the artist. As Philip Kennicott puts it in an excellent piece for the Washington Post, Wojnarowicz was a lapsed Catholic who explored the complexities of the church, “a complicated organization, monolithic only in the minds of its leaders... Wojnarowicz’s imagery was richly Catholic because Catholicism was richly malevolent.” (As many lapsed Catholics know, you can remove god from the equation, but you can never entirely shrug off the culture.)

In their initial outrage, Republicans John Boehner and Eric Cantor threatened the Smithsonian’s funding  -- a go-to conservative scare tactic they’ve been using a lot lately, with Boehner going so far as to call for the end of the entire exhibition. "American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds,” his statement read. “While the amount of money involved may be small, it's symbolic of the arrogance Washington routinely applies to thousands of spending decisions involving Americans' hard-earned money. Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January."

But the specific exhibit was funded largely by grants from individual institutions, not the government, whose $761 million fund for the Smithsonian last year encompassed the entire institution, including the National Zoo and the Natural History Museum -- the latter of which inspired one of Wojnarowicz’s most devastating works, the buffalo photograph that later appeared in a U2 video. One “Hide/Seek” donor, the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts, put up $100,000 for this particular show alone -- but now that it’s been censored, last week it threatened to pull its own funding if the NPG does not reinstate “A Fire in My Belly.”