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Religious group denounces gay artist’s work as “hate speech”

A video work by late gay American artist David Wojnarowicz has been pulled from a national art exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, after the video was denounced as “hate speech” by a powerful American Catholic group.

The banned 4-minute video clip, titled “A Fire in My Belly,” was part of Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, an exhibit of works related to sexual orientation and gender identity in American art at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

While the exhibit has been open since October, ABCNews reports that opposition to the work was sparked this week by an article published Monday on cnsnews.com (formerly the Conservative News Service). It begins:

The federally funded National Portrait Gallery, one of the museums of the Smithsonian Institution, is currently showing an exhibition that features images of an ant-covered Jesus, male genitals, naked brothers kissing, men in chains, Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts and a painting the Smithsonian itself describes in the show’s catalog as “homoerotic.”

The exhibit features, along with Wojnarowicz’s “ant-covered Jesus” video, work by Georgia O’Keefe, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Annie Leibowitz.

Since news that the national gallery exhibits pictures of cocks might not come as a surprise to its readers, CNSNews helpfully itemizes the amount of federal funding received by both the Smithsonian and the National Portrait Gallery to make its case against state-sponsored sacrilege. (paragraph 6 of 64):

The Smithsonian Institution has an annual budget of $761 million, 65 percent of which comes from the federal government […]. The National Portrait Gallery itself received $5.8 million in federal funding in fiscal year 2010.

Soon after publication, the president of the Catholic League, William Donohue, denounced the video as “hate speech,” and a Republican from Ohio called it a misuse of taxpayer money.

To save their federal funding from “hate speech” complaints, the
gallery director quickly caved and pulled
Wojnarowicz’s tribute to his lover. Martin Sullivan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, explained his decision in an interview with The New York Times:

“It’s really a very tough call to make. Obviously the Portrait Gallery is a part of the Smithsonian. It’s just one of many, many players in this new discussion or debate that’s going on in Congress about federal spending, the proper federal role in culture and the arts and so forth. We don’t think it’s in the interest, not only of the Smithsonian but of other federally supported cultural organizations, to pick fights.”

However, he wants to assure everyone he’s not going to pull the plug on the gallery’s first parade of gay work:

“That having been said,” Mr Sullivan added, “we are certainly not going to shut down the entire exhibition or take other pieces out of it.”

Artist Diamanda Galás, whose music was part of another edit of the video, released a short statement Friday in response to the Smithsonian’s removal of the piece. She’s not too happy about it:

To call the name of the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture and remove this work from it because it is too unpleasant strikes me as truly shocking. Is this film an insult to the spirit of Twinkletoes’ whitebread Christmas, to his Christmas tree and its friendly beacons of light, which whisper “Good cheer, One and All!"?

Galás concludes:

David Wojnarowicz was a great artist who died a terrible death in 1992. It was one of the worst times in this country for people with AIDS. My brother, Philip-Dimitri Galas, died six years before him, in 1986, of the same disease in San Diego. THERE WAS NO HOPE WHATSOEVER THEN FOR THIS DISEASE.
So what is so shocking about the truth now in 2010? Does it remind the clergy and the lawmakers of what the cross stands for: PUNISHMENT AND SAVAGE CRUELTY, and make ugly with the NICE and FRIENDLY WARM xmas spirit?

WHO in countries other than our own are dying horrific death of AIDS this Christmas? Christmas comes but once a year.

AND YOUR LIFE? It comes to you but once.

On Dec 2 about 100 demonstrators gathered near the National Portrait Gallery to express their objection to the censorship, and the gallery that represents Wojnarowicz posted three versions of the work on YouTube (pdf). The videos have all since been flagged “inappropriate content,” but the version embedded below remains available for viewing.

According to YouTube stats, the number of views have jumped from 20,000 to more than 48,000 in the last few days — likely a direct result of efforts to censor the gay artist’s “hate speech.”

Below is a 20-minute version of the video:


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