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Next week, the National Portrait Gallery bids goodbye to a controversial exhibit. It gained less attention for what's in it than what was taken out, a video that shows a crucifix covered in ants. It was part of the first gay and lesbian themed show at the Smithsonian Institution.

When it opened last fall, one of the curators told NPR's Neda Ulaby he did not expect controversy.

Mr. DAVID WARD (Curator, National Portrait Gallery): We're not doing Up with Gay People. We're not doing a political exhibition.

INSKEEP: It became political. Conservative members of Congress called for the exhibit's cancellation. And then the video's removal infuriated the art world.

Days before the show closes, Neda Ulaby revisited the Portrait Gallery.

NEDA ULABY: David Ward is an unlikely culture warrior. He's a straight American history scholar and a self-described bureaucrat who's worked for the Smithsonian for 30 years.

Mr. WARD: It's been interesting since last we talked.

ULABY: Ward says he believed from the beginning, that the art would speak for itself.

Mr. WARD: The show deals with masterpieces by major American artists. It doesn't deal with weird, strange outsider artists; it ideals with canonical figures.

ULABY: Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Thomas Eakins.

Mr. WARD: This is mainstream America. We thought that the art would carry our argument.

ULABY: But the argument that gay, lesbian and queer contributed to American culture was apparently too much for some conservative members of Congress. They wanted the show cancelled. It's unclear if any of them saw it.

The controversy started when the Catholic League targeted a video in the show by artist David Wojnarowicz called "Fire in My Belly."

Dr. JONATHAN KATZ (Curator): "Fire in My Belly" offers among the most poignant and powerful images of what it was like to live with AIDS.

ULABY: That's curator Jonathan Katz. He says Wojnarowicz worked on the video while his lover, while much of his community, was dying from AIDS.

The video includes 11 seconds of large black ants crawling on a small plastic crucifix. The League blasted out emails calling it Catholic-bashing, a full month after the show opened.

Dr. KATZ: In my more paranoid moments, I'm often wondering if the reason it took them a month to attack the show was that they were actually focus grouping, trying to figure out what the proper handle to get at the exhibition would be.

ULABY: There's a long history of loud fights over controversial art in museums with public funding; from Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" to Robert Mapplethorpe's unsettling photographs of gay leather culture.

Dr. KATZ: It's no longer the same game that it was 15, 20 years ago, where you simply had to point out the homo and yell, kill it, and the mob attacked. Now, you have to clothe your homophobia in something else.

ULABY: Bullying the gays may no longer be socially acceptable, says Jeff Weinstein, who covered the art controversies of the 1980s and '90s for The Village Voice. What's different this time, he says, is the Internet.

Mr. JEFF WEINSTEIN (Journalist): Basically the right wing bloggers pushed it along very quickly, much more quickly than that would have been possible in the past.

ULABY: The Portrait Gallery got over a thousand emails and letters, criticizing the show - every single one of them after the Catholic League's callout. The head of the Smithsonian ordered the video pulled, and that was wrong, according to an internal review by the Smithsonian's board of regents.

At a press conference last week, Regent Patty Stonesifer had this to say.

Ms. PATTY STONESIFER (Regent, Smithsonian Institution): Once an exhibition is opened, absent actual error, things should not be removed without a significant consultation process.

ULABY: Still, attendance at the Portrait Gallery shot up 75 percent from this time last year. And the artist, David Wojnarowicz, is now a free-speech cause celebre. He died almost 20 years ago from AIDS-related complications.

(Soundbite of video, "Fire in My Belly")

(Soundbite of Unidentified Crowd Chanting)

ULABY: Wojnarowicz's video has been viewed online more than a million times. And it's been screened, in solidarity, by galleries nationwide, including a temporary one right outside the Portrait Gallery.

ULABY: Members of D.C.'s artistic communities scraped together $6,000 to plant this nondescript trailer just 50 feet from the Portrait Gallery entrance. The video plays on a continuous loop. Organizers say 5,000 people have seen it here, so far.

Mr. DEREK SMITH (Attorney): It is very provocative.

ULABY: Derek Smith is a lawyer. He wandered in during lunch. He stood in his winter coat and absorbed the video's surreal images: The crucifix, coins falling in a bowl of blood, red string stitching a mouth shut.

Mr. SMITH: I'm glad that I'm seeing it, and I would be sort of disturbed to be denied the ability to see something like this, cause it is - I definitely would consider it art, without a doubt.

ULABY: As for the artist, David Wojnarowicz, journalist Jeff Weinstein, who knew him, is not sure what he'd make of the controversy today.

Mr. WEINSTEIN: If he were alive, he would be so thrilled that people weren't dying; gay men weren't dying right and left, all over, dropping. I don't know what he would make of it, because the world is a different place.

ULABY: Wojnarowicz's video was recently purchased by the Museum of Modern Art. The show it was removed from, "Hide/Seek" at the National Portrait Gallery, closes the day before Valentine's Day.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And you can take your own look at images from the "Hide/Seek" exhibition at our Web site, NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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