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Top GOP House members threaten Smithsonian

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Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have threatened the Smithsonian over the National Portrait Gallery’s much-praised “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” exhibition. Boehner, the presumptive House Speaker-to-be initially threatened increased oversight and then demanded that the exhibition be “canceled.” Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, demanded that the Smithsonian take down the exhibition, reports The Hill newspaper. It is not clear whether either legislator has seen the show.

‘Hide/Seek’ has been widely praised as an important, scholarly, historical exhibition about a long-ignored part of American history and art history. Here on MAN I wrote: “Where ‘Hide/Seek’ makes it mark is in refuting a position first put forth by conservatives in the 1980s. In a superb catalogue essay, [curator Jonathan] Katz notes that Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) helped inaugurate the culture wars by equating homosexual with art with AIDS. Helms, a little-known congressman named Larry Craig and others swiftly moved to establish ‘gay’ and ‘artist’ as something apart from American. They equated their formula with fear, death and un-Americanness and segregated gays and artists into a rhetorical Manzanar. With “Hide/Seek,” Katz and [co-curator David] Ward wield research and scholarship to dismantle that bombast and leave fact-based history in its place.”

Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik also praised the show, writing: “‘Hide/Seek’ handles [its topic] with all the subtlety required. Scholars Jonathan Katz and David Ward have mounted one of the best thematic exhibitions in years.”

From The Hill:

Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said, “Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January when the new majority in the House moves [in].” He later clarified that Boehner wanted the exhibit “cancelled.”

Cantor demanded that the exhibit be “pulled,” calling it “an outrageous use of taxpayer money.”

The #2 Republican in the House also took issue with the timing of the exhibit, which he labeled “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”

The exhibition has been on view since Oct. 30.

Earlier today the National Portrait Gallery removed a David Wojnarowicz artwork, A Fire in My Belly (1987), from the exhibition in response to complaints from religious conservatives who complained it was anti-Catholic. The video is a moving evocation of America’s response to AIDS.

Pretty over-the-top stuff. Here’s hoping National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan and Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough stand up for the important scholarship they’re enabling. (Earlier this evening Sullivan gave a too-tepid endorsement of the exhibition to the Washington CityPaper’s Kriston Capps: “It is not the intention of the Smithsonian to pull the exhibit,” he said. “We are affirming that our intention is that the exhibition will stay up through the middle of February.” Clough has remained silent.)

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  1. Duane says:

    I presume that Boehner and Cantor have not personally seen the exhibit. Can anyone confirm that?

  2. I’d like to point out, too, that the Smithsonian has pulled the video, an allegory about the suffering caused by AIDS, on the day before World AIDS Day.

    This is really upsetting to me.

  3. D/NO says:

    This is what happens when Democrats don’t vote and when we don’t work to unseat Church from politics.

    Tax all U.S. churches now.

  4. Gerry Hoyt says:

    There is so much stupidity coming out of the Republican party right now that it is difficult to refute their ridiculous charges. Stupidity is forever, and we can’t undo an ignorant persons way of thinking, but we can stand together and protect the things we believe in, especially the things that won out from the ignorance that was smothering it in the past. It it so past , like ancient history, about being gay or not. The Republican party hasn’t any new ideas so they revert to the old issues, and wallow in hate again. Smithsonian should not cave in to the demands of the ignorant old boys society, but remain the institution of expanding one’s knowledge of life and science.

  5. […] The Castle’s admission that Clough himself made the call to pull the Wojnarowicz is also the Smithsonian’s first admission the Secretary has been involved in the controversy surrounding “Hide/Seek.” The presumptive House Speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and No. 2 House Republican Eric Cantor have demanded that the Smithsonian cancel or close the exhibition. […]

  6. Mark says:

    Does Cantor = weasel? He keeps popping up that way.

  7. […] York Magazine, Tyler Green and Huffington Post all have got good coverage of this ridiculousness.  Tyler and Blake Gopnik of […]

  8. TazeMeBro says:

    I think some Republicans appear to be against the arts because, face it, most art galleries and even government funded museums for that matter rarely have exhibits that focus on anything other than left wing agendas. How many exhibits can you recall that were supportive of the troops in Iraq other than ones that suggested they were supportive, but only showed troops as being scared children on a toy battle ground. Have you ever seen one exhibit that focuses on Christianity in a way that is not mocking it?

    All religions but Christianiy are treated with respect by high profile galleries. I doubt you will ever see an exhibit in New York that bashes Muslims as much as Christians have been bashed. To be honest, the mainstream art world needs to be more fair and balanced instead of focusing on the political desires of only half the population.

  9. christi says:

    Gee, TazeMeBro, I cannot think of ONE exhibit in a national gallery that displays a Christian theme in a relevant, purposeful, and reverant manner…nope. nothing. No world famous depictions of the Madonna & Child, no glowing oil works of Christ ascending to the heavens, no delicate, timeless sculptural rendering of Jesus lain in his mother’s arms after being taken down from the cross….why, NOooooo! Have you ever even BEEN in a U.S. art museum???! ENTIRE WINGS, entire galleries, in almost every one of the major, and many smaller, art museums, are devoted entirely to CHRISTIAN works throughout the ages. As the foremost sponsor of artistic endeavor in the history of Europe, the Catholic Church was responsible for financially backing tremendous volumes of works, from the most pivotal art masters who ever lived. And those works overwhelmingly depict Christian images, themes, stories, etc… ANYONE who has ever truly appreciated fine arts knows this fact! And not just about our nation’s collections of pivotal Christian works, but the entire world’s great art collections. The majority of the most valuable and treasured works in this world are from the hands of Masters whose main patron was the Church of Rome. And those works are so vast and expansive that they take up entire galleries, wings, and exhibits, the world over. And here in the U.S., our tax dollars are used to present and protect these Christian works, at our National Galleries. Please, do your research before spouting off. You sound like a complete moron. I went to a Catholic university, and perhaps my education speaks for itself, but there is nothing stopping you from visiting a museum and actually seeing the facts for yourself. Really. And btw, in case it has escaped your attention, there are PLENTY of Christian independents, dems, etc… no need to pigeon-hole us all. We can speak for ourselves, thank you.

  10. […] in American Portraiture.” The show has been in the news ever since right-wing activists threatened the Smithsonian over the exhibition and especially since Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough […]

  11. […] How it all got started: Tyler Green provides a pretty succinct picture of the controversy in its infancy, detailing the threats issued by Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.) against the Smithsonian for wasting taxpayer money on an exhibition that is apparently timed to slag off the Christmas season (Hide/Seek’s exhibition dates are Oct. 30-Feb. 13). You might recall that Tyler Green’s review of Hide/Seek was featured here on Friday Links a few weeks back before this bullshit kicked off. […]

  12. […] Fire in My Belly.” Until then Congressional Republicans had been much lower-temperature, threatening oversight and such. In other words, Clough’s censorship emboldened Republicans rather than sated […]

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