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Censorship at the Smithsonian

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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December 2, 2010

Earlier this fall, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” made waves when it opened at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery here in Washington. It was the first major museum exhibition to focus on the lives and works of those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) in the making of modern American portraiture over the past century.

On Tuesday, the museum removed a four-minute video from the late artist David Wojnarowicz entitled “A Fire in My Belly,” which was originally included in the exhibit. The video, which was produced at the devastating height of the AIDS epidemic in this country, briefly includes scenes of ants crawling over a crucifix. Critics labeled the video as hateful and particularly offensive during the holiday season leading up to Christmas. However, the intention of the video was to depict the suffering of someone living with AIDS. It is worth taking note of the fact that Wojnarowicz himself died of AIDS in 1992 at the age of 37.

Rather than standing up for artistic freedom and challenging those who are always quick to call for censorship, the Smithsonian quickly caved and pulled the video. They were presumably particularly concerned about the comments of certain members of Congress, including the presumptive Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), who labeled the exhibit a “misuse of taxpayer money.” According to the Washington Post, the show, which cost $750,000, was also underwritten by foundations that support gay and lesbian issues.

Labeling the exhibit as somehow anti-Christian or anti-Catholic seems like little more than a convenient excuse to attack the exhibit’s unambiguous embrace of LGBT artists and their works. In announcing the removal of the video from the exhibit, National Portrait Gallery Director Martin Sullivan expressed his regret that some reports had led to the impression that the video was somehow intentionally sacrilegious. It remains to be seen whether this satisfies the demands of those who have spoken out against the exhibit in recent days, with some even calling for it — all 105 works — to be entirely removed from the museum. These include works by the likes of Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Thomas Eakins and Annie Leibowitz. It is perhaps not surprising in this age of rapid response and social networking websites that a Facebook group — “Support Hide/Seek” — has already sprung up.

Two things seem abundantly clear. First, the battle over this particular video is nothing new. It brings to mind battles in years past over the works of other artists and federal funding of the National Endowment for the Arts. This brings me to my second point, which can pretty much be summed up with the following — Where does it stop? While the Smithsonian was quick to remove the video, who is to say the censors won’t come back for more? What if further objections are raised? Will those works also be pulled from the exhibit? As Blake Gopnik writes in the Washington Post, “If every piece of art that offended some person or some group was removed from a museum, our museums might start looking empty — or would contain nothing more than pabulum. Goya’s great nudes? Gone. The Inquisition called them porn.”

If there is one thing that should be pretty obvious about the forces of censorship by this point, it is that when they get an inch, they will surely come back for the full mile. Just look at the annual lists that are compiled of banned books. The classics remain, and each new year seems to bring with it fresh titles to add to the list.

One of the primary purposes of art is to challenge and provoke and question. Inevitably that may offend some and cause others to cheer. Debating works of art, as opposed to censorship of those deemed controversial, is what a free society should support. Hide/Seek explores individuals and themes that have too often been ignored in our society. The Smithsonian and the National Portrait Gallery deserve credit for their willingness to hold this exhibition. It is unfortunate that, in a rush to appease, one of the works on display was removed, tagged with the label of being too controversial.

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