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Censorship at the Smithsonian: John Boehner’s Latest Attack on Freedom

2010 December 6
by Genya Shimkin

Last week, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and a few loud religious zealots bullied The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery into removing a piece of art that they deemed inappropriate.  There is so much wrong with that sentence.  The exhibit, called “Hide/Seek” is “the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture” and examines “how art has reflected society’s evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment.”

The piece that these straight, white men went after is a video called “A Fire in My Belly” that David Wojnarowicz made to depict the suffering of his partner, who was dying of AIDS.  For 11 apparently agonizing seconds, the film shows a crucifix with ants crawling on it.  These 11 seconds were so horrifying that Boehner and his goons are threatening the funding of the Smithsonian itself.

David C. Ward, National Portrait Gallery historian and exhibit co-curator explained that “A Fire in My Belly” reflects the “violent, disturbing and hallucinatory” aspects of the AIDS epidemic stating:

“Fire in My Belly” is an example of political engagement in artistic form with the AIDS epidemic by an artist deeply concerned with the exploration of our response to that medical and societal calamity.  That it is violent, disturbing, and hallucinatory precisely replicates the impact of the disease itself on people and a society that could barely comprehend its magnitude.

Boehner’s rep released the following statement: “This is an outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”  Seriously?  An attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season?  What does any of this have to do with Christmas?  He went on to say, “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].”  So in addition to attacking women’s reproductive rights, gay rights, and health care, we now have to worry about them attacking the nation’s premier cultural institutions.  Great!

Boehner himself stated:

“American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds. While the amount of money involved may be small, it’s symbolic of the arrogance Washington routinely applies to thousands of spending decisions involving Americans’ hard-earned money.”

Appropriations Committee member Jack Kingston, a representative from Georgia further moaned “Absolutely, we should look at their funds… If they’ve got money to squander like this – of a crucifix being eaten by ants, of Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, men in chains, naked brothers kissing – then I think we should look at their budget.”

Again, there is so much wrong with these comments.  First of all, I’m pretty sure if we looked at every single tax-payer-funded project in the country, we’d find a lot to be upset about.  I live in Baltimore, where they can’t fill the Genya-sized potholes all over the city, but throw money at the “Charm City Circulator,” a free – but completely unreliable – bus service that connects a number of the city’s whitest neighborhoods and completely ignores the transit needs of the majority of the city.  But I still pay my taxes, because a lot of that money goes to things like fixing ancient city pipes, paving highways, and paying firefighters.  And I care about those things.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, taxpayer money does not actually fund individual exhibits; it goes to staff, curating, and infrastructure.  This exhibit was funded by private donors and foundations.  Saying that taxpayer funds paid for this video’s installation is like saying taxpayer money went toward the pictures of Sasha and Malia on Obama’s desk.  Totally preposterous.  But logic has never been Boehner’s strongsuit, has it?

Boehner is an opportunist and a reactionist.  He jumped on this only after Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League threw a hissy fit, called the piece “hate speech,” and solicited a reaction from Boehner.  Mr. Donohue, this is not hate speech.  It is free expression.  I do not claim to understand the vast majority of art, but I respect its existence, and I respect its place in our culture.  This is censorship, pure and simple.  And it’s just one more thing to worry about come January.

5 Responses
  1. Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
    December 6, 2010


    Thanks for bringing more attention to this.

    I really couldn’t be more upset about this. I suppose these moaning infants truly think they are doing good by subtracting art of any kind from any museum at all. Even if this piece was intended to offend, as many works prior have been, that should not qualify it for deletion. This is something that people like Boehner continually fail to understand: art cannot, will not and should not pacify everyone. This fact is not only absolutely fine, it is what makes art vital. I have not seen this particular piece and out of sheer probability it is most likely cosmically unimportant and mediocre. Perhaps it isn’t. But either way, we must stop ejecting art on the basis of personal offense because, by this model, we should have no art all. I am so tired of having this conversation. It has become an absolute bore. But I will fight to the death as long as these fickle children insist on manifesting their tight-assedness through palpable, destructive legislative realities. How can these incessant whiners possibly reconcile their laughable prudery with the guarantees of the first amendment? Their position is utterly indefensible. You’re right to address this ridiculous taxation blubbery. I, for one, would be quite happy to lend my taxes to something like this (if, as you point out, this was even a possibility). These puritans do not speak for me, certainly. If the Smithsonian bends to this foolishness it would be nothing short of shameful.

    Jesus Fucking Christ. Bye,


    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      December 6, 2010

      So, I just reread that first sentence only to discover what I had apparently immediately deleted from my memory: that the Smithsonian did, in fact, bow to those professional idiots. How disastrous and disgraceful. What a pity. If anything is more infuriating than having to listen to the tired opinions of regressed prigs it is discovering that otherwise intelligent people have accommodated them. How is it possible not only that we’re still having this primitive debate, but that we’re losing it?

      God Fucking Dammit. Ugh,


    • December 6, 2010

      ^^ What he said. Minus all the parts that refer to the childishness/immaturity of Boehner et al…if you ask me, using these labels for their vindictive need to suppress all options and viewpoints that don’t fit into their narrow morality gives them too much credit, because it implies they could simply grow out of it. These are people who have never bothered to question their ideals, even as they do harm to others.

      “Prudery” is not a word I see nearly often enough in this context. Spot-on!

  2. Genya Shimkin permalink
    December 7, 2010

    I have to add: on the day this piece was posted, there were 2 five-alarm fires in downtown Baltimore, one of them 100 yards from my office. As of this afternoon, no injuries have been reported. I may not like paying my taxes, and I may gripe about the chunk missing from my paycheck, but when a building goes up in flames and 100+ firefights swarm the area to get it under control, I feel pretty good about paying them.

    So tell me, Boehner, how are you going to cut taxes AND spending, and still make sure our firefighters get paid? By attacking art?

    • Colin permalink
      December 9, 2010

      Attacking art is super lucrative.

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