US Reps Wanna Axe Smithsonian’s Gay Art, Should Have Something More Important to Do

A few weeks ago, we mentioned a great exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery called Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. We were thrilled that a comprehensive and sensitive exhibit had been carefully put together documenting the work of queer artists and their queer subjects. We were excited that someone was acknowledging how many incredible, brave, groundbreaking artists are queer, and that the way we see the world is important, and the way we see each other is beautiful and good. This was a thing that warmed our hearts, a thing that made us feel like there was a place for us in the world, like we had successfully carved out a little warm space to live and breathe in.

Then we read about this:

House Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Tuesday called for the dismantling of an exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery after they learned that it contains video of a Jesus statue with ants crawling on it, as well as works of art with strongly sexual themes.



If you’re looking for something to rage about/spit your coffee at the screen about in angry disbelief, feel free to read the whole thing! If you feel like you have better ways to spend your time, and I don’t blame you if you do, let me sum this up for you:

+ I don’t know if you heard, but after the November elections there’s a new Republican majority in Washington, and the National Portrait Gallery had better apologize for this “mistake” and cancel the exhibit before that takes effect.

+ The museum takes some taxpayer money, and therefore is obligated to “maintain common standards of decency.”


+ Did we mention that it’s “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christian season”? The Christmas season that starts in early November, because that’s roughly when this exhibit was opened?

This is so many levels of unbelievable it’s hard to know where to start. First and foremost, the notion that the art world needs to tailor its output to reflect the tastes of the political party currently in power is fascist. Not in a “throwing the word around because I’m angry at the government and Stalin was really bad” kind of way, but in that it was a notable characteristic of fascist and otherwise dangerous and tyrannical regimes. Which is hilarious when you start waxing nostalgic about all the OBAMA = SOCIALIST signs, isn’t it?

Secondly, it’s so horrifying it almost laps itself into being amazing that we can still be arguing about whether art with “sexual themes” is okay, or whether it breaks some “common standard of decency.” Since most of the works in the National PORTRAIT Gallery are, you know, PORTRAITS, it’s hard to believe that any of these are particularly pornographic. If I had to guess, I’d bet they’re most offended by works of Robert Mapplethorpe, which do often feature naked men.

I’m sorry, but I find it hard to believe that that’s a valid concern for the incoming Republican government.

Did someone already balance the budget and I missed it?

But hey, if you wanna talk about standards of common decency, fine. Let’s do this. As of August, there were roughly 180,000 untested rape kits nationwide – that we knew of- many of which were concentrated in Republican states, like Alaska and California. A conservative magistrate recently advocated the “conversion” i.e. corrective rape of lesbians in the military. George W. Bush was ruled to have disregarded our constitutional rights by invading citizens’ privacy with secret surveillance. Oh, and speaking of Robert Mapplethorpe? He died of AIDS. Which Reagan’s Republican government stood by and watched kill thousands of people because they were socially undesirable. Maybe we have a different understanding of “common standards of decency,” but I personally feel that if I had to pick which one of those things violates them, it would not be the photograph of a penis.

And honestly, this Jesus thing? I was raised Christian, and I cannot even conceive of how documenting ants crawling over a statue of Jesus could possibly be offensive. JESUS MADE THE ANTS TOO. There’s that part right in the Bible where he says “let the ants come unto me.” It’s something like that. And even if this was offensive? Sorry, that still doesn’t justify shutting it down.

Aggressively bringing your personal faith into the realm of politics is one thing, but claiming icons of your religion as emblematic of some sort of governmental authority and therefore off-limits for any kind of criticism or even not-uniformly-positive portrayal? Does that contradict every value of democracy, freedom of expression, and individuality that America is founded on, or is that just me?

In short, I don’t know very much about art, or about What America Stands For. But it seems to me that stifling art and the appreciation of it because it doesn’t look like how you personally want America to look is actually the exact opposite of what America is about. But I don’t represent a majority in Congress, so never mind.

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.


    • Ah yes David, that would be “accepting” England where we are yet to have the right to ‘marry’, we have Stonewall featuring a video by Theresa May (of all people) telling the nation ‘It Gets Better’, and violence against homosexuals is up by 12.5%.

    • How is the use of a word that is commonly accepted in the English vernacular more frightening than the complete idiocy of the US government that’s supposed to be running the country? Oh, wait. It isn’t. This article isn’t a paper for an English class. I think you’re being a little harsh and missing the point entirely.

    • im confused becuz the post you linked too was about gay pride and im pretty sure americas pride parades are pretty much kinda just like englands? like we all get to party that day, and be gay (lol) tho i am glad that you are able to be accepted and prideful in your community
      i dont really think you can say gays are tots accepted anywear just yet

      oh btw sry about my bad english, my lack of pride is stifleing my word choice

  1. I’m pretty sure thinking the exhibit is “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christian season” qualifies as paranoia. Do these guys really think that it was a choreographed effort by the Smithsonian to attack Christians? That’s pretty self-centered.

  2. Thanks so much for writing about this with the passion that it deserves. I read the news about it this morning and felt so isolated about my rage. Reading this was a huge catharsis– awesome article.


    Can we just overhaul Congress and start again? I feel like we need to give them deadlines and then fire them if they can’t follow through. The end. They’re running around Washington playing some big game while the rest of watch and suffer. This shouldn’t even be a fucking issue. An art exhibit is so far down on the list of things we need to worry about right now. They’re living in a delusional world far away from reality.

    oh. my. gosh. feelings. I have so many of them.

    Somebody needs to tell this guy what my dad used to tell me when I was a kid: You don’t have to like it. You just have to deal with it. Art is art. You can’t regulate it or get rid of it just, because you don’t like/agree with it. Fuck. Do they even have brains, or do they remove your brain right after you win an election?

  4. “First and foremost, the notion that the art world needs to tailor its output to reflect the tastes of the political party currently in power is fascist.”

    THANK YOU. Glad u said it. Entartete Kunst aka “degenerate art,” anyone?? It’s eerie how much people want to go back to those times.

  5. Sometimes when I hear things that are so amazingly f*cked up, my brain goes into anger overload. My rage is channelled through your writing Rachel, and my brain doesn’t have to explode because of it. Thank you for being so smart.

  6. Update: The National Portrait Gallery agreed to remove one of the artworks from the exhibit late Tuesday. “A Fire in My Belly,” the video installation that depicts ants on a cross, was taken down.

    Museum director Martin Sullivan said in a statement, “I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious.”

  7. I went to see this exhibit with my mother last friday. It was great and had a lot of the classics I was already aware of- Romaine Brooks, Keith Harring, Catherine Opie etc. But it really wasn’t that large of an exhibit. And there was only one Cass Bird photo (NEVAR ENOUGH CASS BIRD).

  8. That paragraph about all the injustices against common decency made me break down. School applications and having to hear fox news from the neighbors and all the shit going on in my life and then seeing this. I couldn’t cry when all the suicides happened but I sure as hell am now.

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  10. For these particular Christians to freak out – eg. about a crucifix covered in ants- to the point of demanding that said artwork and others be removed

    is to suggest that there is no room for discussion or enlightenment regarding the tough questions that said art can raise

    and is also thus to suggest that one does not trust God to have or provide answers to these questions.

    In short, it is to sell (the/their Christian) *God* short by suggesting that God is not big enough to have any decent response (or a way to communicate it) to anything that could be deemed mildly critical of the Christian faith.

    Personally, I think God is bigger than that.

    Having said that, the actual artwork was to ‘show the pain, suffering and isolation of living with (and dying of) AIDS in the eighties’, which doesn’t really directly critique the Christian faith at all.
    And knowing that Jesus was meant to have been/still is a truly top bloke with the biggest and most compassionate heart of anyone ever (hello, died for all the sins), I’m pretty sure that he’s far more interested in helping convey the pain of others and thus perhaps inspiring empathy and understanding in exhibition visitors,
    than being funny that there’s this artwork showing him covered in God’s blessed bugs.


  11. Wait. Wintertime=Christiantime?
    What about Hanukkah/Ramadan/the obvs pagan ritual of putting a dead tree in your living room and gathering around it to pay homage to the natural world/snowangels/all the other things that happen during the “Christian season?”

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