Smithsonian announces that art can’t be controversial

Bill Donohue is on a roll. First he bravely put up a billboard that reassures everyone that Jesus was real, which is no problem, as far as I’m concerned; it’s not true, but he isn’t interfering with other people’s right to express themselves. But now he has really done it: he has successfully pressured the National Portrait Gallery to remove an art work that Donohue did not like. That is obstructing the right of free expression, and is deplorable.

The work in question was a video about the pain of AIDS victims in Mexico, and references the Catholicism of that country by showing a crucifix with ants crawling on it. Apparently, you can make explicit movies that show Jesus getting whipped, tortured, nailed, and stabbed (Donohue loved Gibson’s Passion!), but we’ve got to draw the line at showing bugs crawling on him. Although, probably, Donohue doesn’t so much object to tormenting Jesus as he does to the implicit criticism of Catholicism, which is his true god. And perhaps also to the fact that it was part of an exhibit on sexual and gender identity, which makes all patriarchal homophobes a little queasy.

But so what? Since when do individuals or organizations get to declare what kind of art is permissible, and get national art institutions to yank out exhibits? I am unsurprised that Donohue brayed like an idiot, because that’s what he does, but I am appalled at the response from the gallery.

National Portrait Gallery Director Martin Sullivan said in a statement about the current video that Wojnarowicz’s intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. He said the museum did not intend to offend anyone.

If the museum did not intend to offend anyone, then it wasn’t doing its job. Great art is supposed to challenge the mind, and sometimes that means by necessity that it will offend. Does the National Portrait Gallery include religious art? I know it does. Then it offends atheists. Does it include works by abstract expressionists? I know it does. Then it offends all those people who will declare that they have pictures by their 3 year old on their refrigerators that look better. They’d best get rid of those bold and aggressive paintings by Picasso and replace them with something safer … say, some Thomas Kinkade originals, or perhaps a wing of Elvii painted on black velvet.

Are they going to let Bill Donohue dictate everything that they’re allowed to exhibit? And if Bill Donohue, why not me, or John Waters, or Al Goldstein? Oh, maybe because non-authoritarians are willing to allow work they dislike to stand, unlike wretched bluenoses like Bill Donohue.

You know what’s really sweet about this, though? Donohue’s protest got one obscure exhibit pulled from one art gallery, and now it’s going to blossom on a thousand web sites and millions of people will see it. Quite the triumph, Billy!