Smithsonian Under Fire For Gay Portraiture Exhibit

  • "Hike/Seek" begins in the 1880s with Walt Whitman — before the legal codification of "homosexual." Whitman spent the days before and after the Civil War with his lover, Peter Doyle, a Confederate deserter. Walt Whitman, 1891
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    "Hike/Seek" begins in the 1880s with Walt Whitman — before the legal codification of "homosexual." Whitman spent the days before and after the Civil War with his lover, Peter Doyle, a Confederate deserter. Walt Whitman, 1891
    Walt Whitman/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
  • Eakins' Salutat, 1898, depicted a boxer after a fight — an object of admiration by a male audience, rather than an athlete in a fight.
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    Eakins' Salutat, 1898, depicted a boxer after a fight — an object of admiration by a male audience, rather than an athlete in a fight.
    Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
  • American writer and art connoisseur Lincoln Kirstein founded a literary magazine at Harvard called Hound and Horn, which featured writing by the likes of Walker Evans and Alfred Stieglitz. Lincoln Kirsten in Dorm at Harvard, 1930
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    American writer and art connoisseur Lincoln Kirstein founded a literary magazine at Harvard called Hound and Horn, which featured writing by the likes of Walker Evans and Alfred Stieglitz. Lincoln Kirsten in Dorm at Harvard, 1930
    Walker Evans/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
  • Georgia O'Keeffe, averse to the interpretations of her work, responded with a series of horns and antlers. According to the exhibition, this one was a "representation of womanhood, protected and bulwarked from the world of men." Goat's Horn with Red, 1945
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    Georgia O'Keeffe, averse to the interpretations of her work, responded with a series of horns and antlers. According to the exhibition, this one was a "representation of womanhood, protected and bulwarked from the world of men." Goat's Horn with Red, 1945
    Georgia O'Keefe/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
  • "The Lavender Scare" of the 1950s, paralleling the Red Scare, refers to the persecution of gays and lesbians. Artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, lovers for years, opposed that prevailing political culture in their work. Canto XIV [From XXIV Drawings From Dante's Inferno], 1959
    Hide caption
    "The Lavender Scare" of the 1950s, paralleling the Red Scare, refers to the persecution of gays and lesbians. Artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, lovers for years, opposed that prevailing political culture in their work. Canto XIV [From XXIV Drawings From Dante's Inferno], 1959
    Robert Rauschenberg/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
  • Souvenir, 1964
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    Souvenir, 1964
    Jasper Johns/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
  • Beauford Delaney was associated with, although not necessarily in, various circles in New York City — he had African-American friends in Harlem, white gay acquaintances in Greenwich Village, where he lived, and contemporaries in the modernist art circles. James Baldwin, 1963
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    Beauford Delaney was associated with, although not necessarily in, various circles in New York City — he had African-American friends in Harlem, white gay acquaintances in Greenwich Village, where he lived, and contemporaries in the modernist art circles. James Baldwin, 1963
    Beauford Delaney/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
  • The gay liberation movement arose after the Stonewall riots in New York City's Greenwich Village in 1969. Robert Mapplethorpe was a well-known artist-photographer at the time, also known as Patti Smith's lover. Self-Portrait, 1975
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    The gay liberation movement arose after the Stonewall riots in New York City's Greenwich Village in 1969. Robert Mapplethorpe was a well-known artist-photographer at the time, also known as Patti Smith's lover. Self-Portrait, 1975
    Robert Mapplethorpe/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
  • The intellectual Susan Sontag had an early marriage to sociologist Peter Reiff, but later in life had a committed relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz. Susan Sontag, 1975
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    The intellectual Susan Sontag had an early marriage to sociologist Peter Reiff, but later in life had a committed relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz. Susan Sontag, 1975
    Peter Hujar/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
  • With his series of camouflaged portraits, Warhol continued to reinforce his notoriously evasive persona. Camouflage Self-Portrait, 1986
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    With his series of camouflaged portraits, Warhol continued to reinforce his notoriously evasive persona. Camouflage Self-Portrait, 1986
    Andy Warhol/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
  • In 1990, more than 18,000 Americans died of AIDS, painter Keith Haring being one of them. Unfinished Painting, 1989
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    In 1990, more than 18,000 Americans died of AIDS, painter Keith Haring being one of them. Unfinished Painting, 1989
    Keith Haring/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
  • Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe also died of AIDS in 1989 — which explains the stark contrast between this 1988 portrait and his playful 1975 portrait. Robert Mapplethorpe Self-Portrait, 1988
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    Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe also died of AIDS in 1989 — which explains the stark contrast between this 1988 portrait and his playful 1975 portrait. Robert Mapplethorpe Self-Portrait, 1988
    Robert Mapplethorpe/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
  • About a quarter-century after AIDS first appeared, a number of artists are examining gender identity in a way that resembles the exhibition's starting point. Ellen Degeneres, Kauai, Hawaii, 1997
    Hide caption
    About a quarter-century after AIDS first appeared, a number of artists are examining gender identity in a way that resembles the exhibition's starting point. Ellen Degeneres, Kauai, Hawaii, 1997
    Annie Liebovitz/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

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The Smithsonian Institution is under fire for an exhibition called Hide/Seek that is being touted as the "first major exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture."

There are some very famous artists represented in the show: Andy Warhol, Walt Whitman and Jasper Johns, among many others. But the work that so far has been the most controversial is a provocative video from 1987 by the late artist David Wojnarowicz called A Fire In My Belly.

Martin Sullivan, director of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, says the artist created the piece as a response to the "agony and suffering" of his partner who at the time was dying of AIDS. Using "vivid colors, and some fairly grotesque scenes, it's more a meditation on the fragility of the human flesh," Sullivan says.

But included in that meditation is a crucifix — a cross bearing the body of Christ  — crawling with ants. The image, according to Catholic League President Bill Donohue, is offensive. He calls the video "hate speech" and says that "the Smithsonian would never have their little ants crawling all over an image of Muhammad."

Donohue says he complained to members of Congress and the Smithsonian's Board of Regents. "My principle is very simple," he says, "If it's wrong for the government to take the taxpayers' money to promote religion, why is it OK to take taxpayers' money to assault religion?"

Donohue admits he has not seen the exhibition Hide/Seek, but he did see the video images of the ants on the crucifix online.

Donohue's concerns echo those of others who've complained to the National Portrait Gallery, says Sullivan. So Sullivan decided to remove A Fire In My Belly from the show.

"The concern that people of the Christian faith were apparently telling us — 'You wouldn't do this to a Muslim image' — was distracting to the larger and more important themes of the show, which is why we did the exhibition in the first place," Sullivan explains.

At least one critic has accused the Smithsonian of caving in to pressure from Catholics and from two Republican members of Congress. Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia called the exhibition "an outrageous use of taxpayer money." A spokesperson for incoming House Speaker John Boehner told The Hill newspaper that "Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January."

Political football? You bet, says Lee Rosenbaum, who writes about the arts for The Wall Street Journal. In her blog, CultureGrrl, she says a show like this could be too controversial for a federal institution.

"Most of its artists are down the middle of the fairway: big-name American artists like Eakins, Bellows, Hartley, O'Keeffe even," says Rosenbaum. "The problem is that it's such an easy target when they're looking for cuts, when they're looking for differences with the administration, to look at a federal institution — which the National Portrait Gallery is — and try to make that into a big issue."

A spokesperson for the Smithsonian says that since the show opened on Oct. 30, the National Portrait Gallery has received only one complaint from a visitor.

Sullivan says the rest of the exhibition will remain open until mid-February.

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