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.)