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The Smithsonian Institution is under fire. At issue is what is being touted as the first major exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture.

The show is called "Hide/Seek," and NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports on why it's turning some heads.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: There are some very famous artists represented in the show "Hide/Seek": Andy Warhol, Walt Whitman, Jasper Johns, among many others. But the work that so far has been the most controversial is a provocative video by the late artist David Wojnarowicz.

(Soundbite of song "This Is The Law Of The Plague")

Ms. DIAMANDA GALAS (Singer/Songwriter): When any man hath an issue out of his flesh...

BLAIR: The work is called "A Fire In My Belly." Martin Sullivan, director of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, says the artist created the 1987 work as a response to the agony and suffering of his partner, who at the time was dying of AIDS. Sullivan describes the work.

Mr. MARTIN SULLIVAN (Director, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian): Vivid colors, fairly grotesque scenes, parts of the human body. It's more kind of a meditation on the fragility of the flesh.

BLAIR: Included in that meditation is a crucifix, a cross bearing the body of Christ, crawling with ants.

Mr. PHIL DONOHUE (President, The Catholic League): The Smithsonian would never have their little ants crawling all over an image of Mohammed.

BLAIR: Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League, calls the video hate speech and complained to members of Congress and the Smithsonian's board of regents.

Mr. DONOHUE: And my principle is very simple: If it is wrong for the government to take the taxpayers' money to promote religion, why is it acceptable for the government to take the taxpayers' money to assault religion?

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

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

Mr. SULLIVAN: The concern that people of the Christian faith were apparently telling us: Well, you wouldn't do this to a Muslim image, and so forth, was distracting from the larger and more important themes of the show, which is why we did the exhibition in the first place.

BLAIR: At least one critic has accused the Smithsonian of caving in to pressure from two Republican members of Congress. Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia called the exhibition, quote, "an outrageous use of taxpayer money." And a spokesperson for House Speaker-to-be John Boehner told The Hill newspaper that, quote, "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 on artsjournal.com, she says a show like this could be too controversial for a federal institution.

Ms. LEE ROSENBAUM (Writer, Wall Street Journal): Most of its artists are down the middle of the fairway, you know, big-name American artists like Eakins, Bellows, Hartley, O'Keeffe even. The problem is that it's such an easy target for conservative politicians at this particular time, 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 to try to make that into a big issue.

BLAIR: A spokesperson for the Smithsonian says, since the show opened on October 30th, the National Portrait Gallery received only one complaint from a visitor. The gallery's Martin Sullivan says the rest of the exhibition will remain open until mid-February.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

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