The Smithsonian has made a mistake. The institution responsible for preserving and celebrating American history has chosen to selectively edit that history to appease the wishes of a cultural fringe movement. Its irresponsible action—removing a controversial work of art from a National Portrait Gallery exhibit—has failed to satisfy right-wing advocates of censorship, while provoking a strong backlash from many of the institution’s strongest supporters. In the weeks since the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” from the Portrait Gallery, funders have withdrawn their support for the Smithsonian, artists have requested that their work be removed from the institution, and Americans have lost trust in our national museum. Luckily, and remarkably, there’s a very simple thing the Smithsonian can still do to restore its reputation and create a barrier against further, inevitable, attempts at censorship. It can simply put the art back.
The story by now is well known. The National Portrait Gallery hosted a privately-funded exhibit examining the influence of gay and lesbian identity on American portraiture. CNSnews.com, an outlet owned by the right-wing Media Research Center, got wind of the exhibit and published a breathless 3,700 word “exposé” of its supposedly shocking content. CNS contacted incoming House GOP leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor for their thoughts on the exhibit—smelling culture war blood, Boehner and Cantor embraced the crusade against “sacrilegious” art in the Smithsonian. The effort was soon adopted and brought to the mainstream media's attention by Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, a far-right organization not affiliated with the Catholic Church, who has a long history of extremism.
While railing against the exhibit as a whole as well as its implication that gays and lesbians have a place in American history, the would-be censors found a convenient lightning rod in excerpts of an 11-minute video by the late American artist David Wojnarowicz, which depicts his partner’s struggle with AIDS, including 11 seconds showing ants crawling on a crucifix. Despite the work’s homage to centuries of Christian art depicting the suffering of Christ, Donohue and his allies managed to portray Wojnarowicz’s work as somehow anti-Christian, even, as Cantor put it, an “attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”
Within 48 hours of the CNS story’s publication, the Smithsonian bowed to pressure and removed Wojnarowicz’s work from the exhibition, leaving no time for a public debate on the role of our public museums, much less on the value of the work in question. When it closed the door on a public debate, the Smithsonian clearly hoped to close the door on a brewing scandal. It did not. Instead, it sent a clear signal to both would-be censors and their opponents: the Smithsonian’s collections, and our collective history, are open to politically motivated revision.
The museum’s decision to remove the work that caused the most controversy while standing behind the exhibit as a whole may have seemed to them like a handy compromise, but it was short-sighted. To pull a piece from an exhibit under threat of censorship does more than deny the public’s right to see that particular work of art; it taints the entire exhibit and implies that the works that remain have passed muster with the self-appointed culture police. The Portrait Gallery has agreed to display the censored video online, but that is not enough. Wojnarowicz’s video belongs in the exhibit’s narrative, not in its footnotes. As part of American history, its story belongs in the Smithsonian, not the scrap pile of right-wing revisionist historians.
Beyond the damage done to the exhibit itself, the Smithsonian’s censorship of “A Fire in My Belly” welcomes even more meddling and censorship from the far right. The Religious Right and House GOP’s hit job on the Portrait Gallery was just the opening salvo in the coming assault on those who don’t share their narrow view of what it means to be American. Incoming Speaker John Boehner wants not only to remove the entire privately funded exhibit from the portrait gallery, but promises “tough scrutiny” of the Smithsonian’s entire budget and, presumably, its holdings.
And that is just what the House GOP has planned for art—we can only guess that their planned investigations into public radio, climate change science, the president’s birth certificate, and American Muslims will follow similar patterns of political bullying. We must prevent those attacks from ending in similar dubious “compromises.”
The Smithsonian’s leaders have the chance to set a strong example for other groups attacked by these newly empowered right-wing culture warriors. The museum should restore “A Fire in My Belly” with pride: it represents Americans who for so long had their voices silenced by a government and a society that found it easier to ignore them. If the Smithsonian does not undo its censorship it becomes complicit in that silencing, and in a dramatic distortion of American history and values.
Everyone makes mistakes under pressure. But the Smithsonian’s leaders have the rare opportunity to correct the damage done by their error. It’s January. Christmas can no longer be ruined. Just put the art back.