Douchebag Decree: Boehner and Posse vs. Smithsonian


I have a feeling that House Majority Leader-to-be John Boehner may prove himself the worthy recipient of many a Douchebag Decree in the months and years to come, but the distinctly layered douche-osity of this story made it hard to resist awarding him the honors this week.

Since October 30, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has been showing Hide/Seek, an exhibition of LGBTQ portraiture. Until yesterday, one of the pieces in the exhibition was a video called “Fire in My Belly.” The piece, meant to be an expression of the pain of AIDS and the fragility of the body, was created by David Wojnarowicz in response to his partner’s suffering. Wojnarowicz himself died of AIDS in 1992. Here is the video, which depicts ants crawling on a crucifix, among other images. A warning: It is pretty graphic in its depictions of human suffering, and is NSFW.

The exhibition had been running smoothly since its opening, with only one complaint from a visitor. Then suddenly this week, the über-conservative Boehner, having most likely been alerted to the exhibition by the Catholic League and conservative site CNS News, surfaced from his self-congratulatory election haze and decided that he was outraged! His outrage was focused on the Wojnarowicz video and its depiction of the crucifix, but CNS and Boehner’s buddies took issue with other parts of the exhibition as well.

Jack Kingston (R-Georgia) had this to say: “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.”

As a side note, I’m wondering when Ellen DeGeneres stopped being America’s Favorite Nonthreatening Daytime Lesbian and started inciting such a fear of feel-ups. But the important part of Kingston’s statement, and what makes this whole debacle so very douche-y, is that mention of the budget. Basically, Boehner and his cronies hinted repeatedly that unless the Smithsonian took down the Jesus/ants video, thereby censoring itself to meet conservative standards, they were going to cut their federal funding.

john-boehner-smirk.gifBoehner was typically righteous, saying, “American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy.” As others have reported, this is a bullshit stance to take, seeing as the Hide/Seek exhibit is largely funded by individual donors and LGBTQ foundations. But Boehner doesn’t care: “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.”

Now, I’d like to say that this a black-and-white, douche vs. non-douche story, but it seems that we have a bit of a douche sandwich on our hands. The Smithsonian, in response to being called out by Boehner and company, did not do the right thing and take yesterday’s World AIDS Day as an opportunity to stand up for the work of this LGBTQ artist who died of AIDS. Nope. Instead they did the douche thing by taking down the video and all but apologizing. “I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious,” said Martin Sullivan, the National Portrait Gallery’s director. “In fact, the artist’s intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. It was not the museum’s intention to offend. We are removing the video today.” The rest of the exhibit has stayed intact.

Obviously, I think this was the wrong move on the Smithsonian’s part. But I’d love to hear other opinions! Was it acceptable for the NPG to take down the video, seeing as Boehner and the House do have the power to take away some of the museum’s funding? Should the NPG be given a pass since they are, after all, the first major American museum to house an exhibition of LGBTQ portraits? Or is it Douchebag Decrees all around this week?

by Lindsay Baltus
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7 Comments Have Been Posted

I think that Boehner for sure

I think that Boehner for sure is deserving of the DD and while I wish that the Smithsonian had chosen another tactic (like publishing a table of where the money came from) I think that they were being bullied in a way that is difficult to effectively fight. With all the spin mass media puts on things their noncompliance could be plastered everywhere as the Smithsonian hates America and Christians! Terrorists! It seems absurd to say, but things get out of hand quickly.

all douchebags. sigh.

the smithsonian's decision reminds me of the debate over librarians who would or would not give up lists of patrons' checkout histories for the PATRIOT act several years ago. some did, because the government was telling them to, but some took it as an affront to what they stood for (freedom to read what we want without having to answer for it, or, in this case, the creation of controversial art) and decided to protest. the museum was being bullied, and funding being what it is, they perhaps feared losing popularity and visitors more than they feared betraying an artistic vision. not incomprehensible, but really, really disheartening. this country's bigshots are already biased enough against artists. if our museums and exhibition halls won't even take a stand, who else has a national/global platform that will?

I called and left a message

I called and left a message with the Speaker of the House about how that was a very rash decision, and that it infringed upon the artists freedom of expression. Now that I think about it the Smithsonian could have built a separate room that had a warning on the outside of it that stated: "Warning, this video exhibit may offend people that become upset viewing acts of what some may call sacrilege. The artist had no intent of creating blasphemous imagery. This piece was created solely to express the loneliness, agony and pain of living with HIV and dying with AIDS. Thank you." I think that many people that would be offended could make the decision to walk on by, not look at that piece and continue on to something else. Unfortunately some people are not ready to face the harsh reality of what some people feel inside and go through.

I agree that the video should

I agree that the video should be left up, but something tells me that the artist in question did indeed intend to create blasphemous imagery. There's a reason he used a crucifix, and saying, "This is solely a piece about dying of AIDS" buffers the viewer from a lot of the symbolism, and really doesn't do the work justice, when you could just as easily say, "This is a piece about living gay in America."

Only way to honor the artist is to make a bigger deal of it.

Boehner had a chance for easy political points. Gay-baiting + conservative Christian values vs. "extraneous" "liberal" waste of taxpayer dollars. It appeals to most elements of the republican base. The Smithsonian wouldn't have had a chance against the backlash that the US media would unleash. I do think that the best way to honor the artist and the rights of the conscientious consumer is to defend the art. That said, I don't think that most people have what it takes to wager their job on it and obviously the curator of the exhibit didn't either.

It's a pathetic state of affairs. Is the art as sacrilegious as the Mohammad cartoons? Not surprisingly, there are tons of people who straddle both sides of the religious (in)sensitivity spectrum: throwing stones from the comfort of their tiny crystal cottages.


As I explained to someone else on another website about this issue: my strict experience with art taught me that it a piece's purpose should never be about mere decoration. Art is supposed to evoke emotion, thought, and promote communication, among many other things. If darker pieces make you feel dark thoughts, that might exactly be the point of it. How HIV infected people are treated as "nonpersons" is sacrilege to many religious and spiritual groups.
You should feel outraged, but not at the artist.
You should feel outraged at a society that treats people this way.

The video reveals too many feelings

the video was hard for me to watch. There are so may feelings i have now, that I can;t really express them clearly... Panic, fear, disgust combine with interest and understanding.. Ufff. that's hard.
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