The Religious Right is up in arms about an exhibit of art by and about gay and lesbian Americans that’s opening at the Brooklyn Museum today — especially about a small snippet of a video work that some have deemed “anti-Christian.”
Sound familiar? That’s because it’s an exact repeat of what happened when the same exhibit, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” opened at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery last year.
To recap, “Hide/Seek,” which was the first major exhibit to explore themes of gender and sexual difference in American art, opened at the Smithsonian in October 2010 to rave reviews and no complaints. The next month, a reporter from the right-wing outfit CNSNews visited the exhibit and was shocked by what she saw. On November 29, she filed an epic 3,700 word story with the breathless title: “Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus, Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts.” Cue the right-wing outrage, which ended up settling mostly on the “ant-covered Jesus,” a few seconds of a compilation of video works by the gay artist David Wojnarowicz, who had used traditional Catholic iconography of the suffering of Christ to reflect on the suffering of victims of the AIDS crisis.
Bill Donohue, the unsavory leader of the Catholic League (an advocacy organization not officially related to the Catholic Church), immediately took on the crusade against gay art and the “ant-covered Jesus” as his own, calling the Wojnarowicz piece “hate speech,” and claiming the exhibit was “designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians.” Soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor smelled blood and jumped on the issue, threatening the Smithsonian’s relatively miniscule federal funding if the exhibit was not removed. Cantor adopted Donohue’s and CNSNews’ preposterous argument, stating the show was "an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season."
On November 30 – one day after the CNSNews hit piece was published – the Smithsonian caved in and removed the Wojnarowicz piece from the exhibit.
It was a stunningly quick cave to arguments backed only by anti-gay prejudice and the increasingly popular myth of Christian victimization. But the Smithsonian’s cowardice had one silver lining: “Hide/Seek” got national press attention and Wojnarowicz’s work was displayed in museums across the country.
Now, New York viewers are getting a change to see the whole exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. And, it seems, the Religious Right is getting another chance to raise a fuss about gay people making art. As PFAW Foundation’s Michael Keegan writes in the Huffington Post today, a coalition of right-wing figures, including Donohue, CNSNews, the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and a handful of GOP elected officials, are attacking the exhibit, recycling the same claims that it somehow amounts to attack against Christians during the “Christmas season.”
Importantly, the Brooklyn Museum has dug in its heels and is not backing down to the pressure. But it’s remarkable that the weak attacks on “Hide/Seek” still have energy behind them from the Right one year later. PFAW Foundation has invited Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, the Bishop of Brooklyn, who first raised the right-wing alarm about the Brooklyn exhibit, to debate the issue in a public forum. We hope he accepts.