The 1980s culture wars are back. Incoming House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor have called on the Smithsonian to dismantle a groundbreaking art exhibit focused on same-sex attraction, threatening to de-fund the federally-sponsored institution if it does not do so.
The exhibit, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery is "the first major museum exhibition" focused on gender and sexual identity in American culture, celebrating "gay and lesbian art and delineat[ing] its place in the history of American painting and photography."
For soon-to-be reigning House Republicans, the thought of exploring gay sexuality in a museum settling is apparently an outrage, and they wasted no time lobbing absurd and baseless threats at the institution. Cantor called it an "outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season," while Boehner 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 to end the job-killing spending spree in Washington."
Although federal funds are only used at the Smithsonian to support buildings, staff, and the care of artworks (i.e., taxpayer dollars did not pay for the exhibit in question), Smithsonian leaders were rattled enough by the right-wing backlash that they agreed to take down one controversial piece, a four-minute video by David Wojnarowicz, who died from AIDS in 1992, that includes 11 seconds of a crucifix with ants crawling on it.
Blake Gopnik of the WashingtonPost.com, who wrote a compelling review of "Hide/Seek" when it opened in early November, notes:
This fuss is about the larger topic of the show: Gay love, and images of it. The headline that ran on [the Post's] coverage of the matter on the right-wing Web site CNSnews.com mentioned the crucifix—but as only one item in a list of the exhibition’s ‘shockers’ that included ‘naked brothers kissing, genitalia and Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breast.’ (Through a bra, one might note, in an image that’s less shocking than many moves by Lady Gaga.)