thought police

How Rep. John Boehner + Bill Donohue Got the Smithsonian To Yank Video Showing Jesus’ AIDS Death

Because some religious zealots dubbed part of the Smithsonian’s new all-queer exhibit Hide/Seek to be hate speech, the museum’s National Portrait Gallery has caved and pulled part of the showcase. Stupids.

The video work A Fire in My Belly from NYC artist David Wojnarowicz, who died in 1992 from AIDS, featured ants crawling over Jesus Christ’s body. It was, fittingly, supposed to represent the suffering of AIDS victims. But it was too much for Catholic League president William Donohue, who got incoming House speaker Rep. John Boehner to bitch to the Smithsonian too. The congressman’s argument? “American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy.” Rep. Jack Kingston called for the museums funds to be “looked into”: “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.”

The complaining — launched on — worked. The Smithsonian yanked the video, dubbed “hate speech” by Donohue for featuring 11 seconds of the lord and savior; it had been on display since Oct. 30 in Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, where queer works were curated into a single show that attempted to show some non-obvious LGBT contributions to the art world. But don’t go calling museum officials a bunch of pussies.

“The decision wasn’t caving in,” says Martin E. Sullivan, the museum’s director. “We don’t want to shy away from anything that is controversial, but we want to focus on the museum’s and this show’s strengths.”

And here I thought one of the show’s strengths was showing off queer art that might otherwise be looked over or pushed to the way side.

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  • DC Steve

    I understand the Smithsonian is beholden to others for funding, but this is really disgraceful. You’d think the DC art world would have learned something from the Mapplethorpe controversy at the Corcoran.

    If people think this is “hate speech”, perhaps it’s because it’s too finely polished a mirror, and what people find most repellant is that which they see in themselves.

  • Tallskin

    The reeking stench of religion’s corpse once again reaches out to bash gays

  • Kieran

    This is the kind of degenerate gay “art” that gives gays a bad name. This isn’t art, its deliberately offensive and obnoxious junk.

  • Charles

    @Kieran: Degenerate gay art? Inform yourself:

    “The gallery was showing a four-minute excerpt from a 1987 piece titled “A Fire in My Belly,” made in honor of Peter Hujar, an artist-colleague and lover of Wojnarowicz who had died of AIDS complications in 1987. And for 11 seconds of that meandering, stream-of-consciousness work (the full version is 30 minutes long) a crucifix appears onscreen with ants crawling on it. It seems such an inconsequential part of the total video that neither I nor anyone I’ve spoken to who saw the work remembered it at all.

    But that is the portion of the video that the Catholic League has decried as “designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians,” and described as “hate speech” – despite the artist’s own hopes that the passage would speak to the suffering of his dead friend. The irony is that Wojnarowicz’s reading of his piece puts it smack in the middle of the great tradition of using images of Christ to speak about the suffering of all mankind. There is a long, respectable history of showing hideously grisly images of Jesus – 17th-century sculptures in the National Gallery’s recent show of Spanish sacred art could not have been more gory or distressing – and Wojnarowicz’s video is nothing more than a relatively tepid reworking of that imagery, in modern terms.” Blake Gopnik, Washington Post

  • DC Steve

    @Kieran: I disagree in the strongest terms. This is art about suffering, made by an artist who himself died of AIDS.

    If it’s offensive, it’s offensive because it’s offensive the way society has shunned the AIDS epidemic, trying to sweep it under the rug for decades while an entire subculture was literally torn apart by the disease. Thinking about this SHOULD be ugly and uncomfortable, to really understand the tragedy of it.

  • Tallskin

    @Kieran. Whether or not the art is bad or good, it’s not for a f*cking christian to try and suppress it.

    What are the vile sky pixie worshippers frightened of, if everyone sees it they’ll become atheists?

    Kieran, I am astounded that you have such limited intelligence as to fail to understand the serious implications of this banning of a piece of art.

    I’ll spell it out for you. In future is every worshipper of a sky pixie (jews, christians and muslims, sikhs etc) now to be able to squeal “This is offensive to me” and have it banned? Novels? TV programmes? Films? Food? You?

    The religiously afflicted are far too prone to ban things they don’t like, for example gays.

    Unless they are faced down and told to go back to their kindergartens and read their holy texts in private without bothering the adults then they will be emboldened to try and ban more stuff.

    This is a sad event. One point to the religious bigots and defeat for the rest of us.

  • Charles

    It’s not a complete defeat. Hide/Seek is not being cancelled. And it is STILL a beautiful, powerful, awe-inspiring exhibition. Go see it in person, you will be moved. The exhibition closes February 13.

  • justiceontherocks

    @ Kieran. Thank you for defining art for us. Every time you post here it’s some crap about how some gay person did something that shames the community. Too bad we aren’t all as perfect as you.

    Now get back in your bubble.

  • DR

    I don’t like the imagery of my Lord and Savior on a cross covered by ants but I don’t like the suppression of an artist’s impression that clearly jives with Biblical thought even more than I don’t like the specific image… we know Christ hung with the sick and lame, and this is a pretty fitting image. That’s kind of the point, to make people think about suffering and make them a bit (ok, a LOT) uncomfortable.

    What I really don’t like the most is Boehner’s bullying the Smithsonian into censorship.

  • hephaestion

    Do they imagine that the cross that Jesus was crucified on had no ants on it. Hello? It was outside. Ants always find blood.

  • Tom

    @Kieran: Jesus, get a fucking life. Hey, you aren’t president of the Catholic League are you?

  • Doug Morrison

    @Kieran: Art is in the eye of the beholder… I would guess a pretty painting of a flower is what you consider to be art?

  • Mark

    How on earth is this video about AIDS? What does AIDS have to do with a creepy clown mask laying on a street, or a guy jerking off? (That’s not how you get AIDS, by the way.) Just like Jane Lynch said on the show Glee, if all you’re doing with your art is trying to push the envelope, what you usually get is bad art. And while even bad, pretentious art is protected under the 1st Amendment, that doesn’t mean museums have to show it, or taxpayers have to pay for it. The 1st Amendment doesn’t owe anyone money.

  • JAW

    I agree… it was in bad taste… I would not have a problem showing it at a private gallery in Soho or other neighborhoods.

    The exhibit has many powerful works of art. We do not need to add pieces like this to give those on the extreme right a reason to hate us even more.

  • I have an idea!

    I want to commemorate World AIDS Day by staging a photo of a sea of naked, decomposing corpses of people who died of AIDS, and then show people shitting all over the corpses, and then pepper the scene with big smiley stickers!!! I think that’s art so don’t you go judging now! Oh and I want it exhibited at the Smithsonian and if you try to have my exhibit pulled, then you are a Nazi bigot freak.

  • Larry-bob Roberts

    It’s especially terrible that they caved in on the eve of World AIDS Day / A Day Without Art.

    Just as in the case of Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association, whom Wojnarowicz sued for copyright violation, this takes an excerpt from a larger work out of context, distorting its meaning.

  • Brad D

    If this had been a Koran with ants on it, you would be screaming bloody murder that it was bigoted and Islamophobic. So let me guess — your mindless hypocrisy is totally lost on you, right?

  • justincase

    Is it really necessary that the gay art that gets all the publicity is inevitably nothing but tasteless, dull-witted porn? Is that the best we can present to society?

  • ewe

    Artists have historically always been the first to be eliminated.

  • ewe

    @Kieran: Says you. Not everyone. And you approve of yanking ART that effects you negatively hence; you are no different than Donahue and Guiliani to name two. I will pass on waiting to see any exhibition anywhere prior to your approval thank you very much.

  • ewe

    This is going backward. Instead of standing up to religious fanatics, we have now cowered to christian idolatry the same way we have for Islamic facists objecting to cartoons. And that is more dangerous than any fleeting art exhibition.

  • ewe

    Don’t go see it if you don’t want to. Whatever ever happened to everyone who used to say change the fucking channel if you don’t want to watch?

  • Queer Supremacist

    Why is the government funding ANY artists? Are we still in the age of the Medici family?

    @justincase: I don’t consider this porn as it’s far from erotic. But I also don’t consider it good art. And I agree we need to raise the standards where gay art is concerned. I have found very little that depicts the beauty and sanctity of same-sex love other than pretty boys pawing each other (not that I mind that, don’t get me wrong). I have seen nothing that depicts the emotional pain of the closet or coming out, or the challenges of a relationship. Just porn, juvenile attempts at trying to shock people who are never going to see the art anyway, and labored attempts at camp.

  • DR


    I think the problem is that the tastefully done doesn’t get recognized by our culture in ANY regards….tv, film, art, music. The only stuff which gets any play is what is controversial and raises a stink in someone’s eyes.

  • TonyD

    To quote Ab Fab’s Patsy “But, is it art?” .. Art like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Art is the clothing of a revelation. Without containing the quality of revealing something to the beholder, art then becomes propaganda. Was Rivera an artist or a propagandist? Perhaps both.. True art reveals.. I do not get any revelation from this particular piece; just a stomachache.

    @DR – I agree with you that the real issue is this Rep’s bullying The Smithsonian into censorship. Whats next?

  • Charles

    @Queer Supremacist: See the exhibition in person. You will see depictions of emotional pain of the closet or coming out and the challenges of relationships. I think these themes are expressed in gay art all the time, particularly in film.

  • Justin Russo

    We can expect this sort of nonsense periodically for at least the next two years now that the brain-dead Republicans have gotten control of the House. The have to have something to throw to their evolution-denying, earth-is-6000-years-old believing dullard base to distract them while they give away the store to their billionaire puppet masters.

  • Joe

    Geezus, Im having 80’s flashbacks complete with Jesse Helms, Robert Maplethorp and Ronnie Reagan/George Bush. Shit, some things never change in the good ol US of A

  • Michael

    Oh please! If the “artist” was totally anonymous, very few would see any artistic value in this. He was gay, and automatically, this is art? I’m not Catholic, or even religious, but this is not art, and yeah, it is a show of poor taste. I’d no more display this in my home, than the ants I blast with Raid whenever they appear. This is not a slam toward gay art/artists, and was a good call. Public arts money can surely be better spent.

  • Javier

    Blasphemous art should never be subsidized by public funds. If an artist wants to blaspheme the Lord, he should do without government funds.

  • WillBFair

    How typical. You guys are upset about this only to act out your hatred for fundamentalists. And you’re willing to praise trash in order to do it.
    I don’t care for fundamentalists either. But this will also offend liberal christians, our freinds.
    But I forgot. In your world, all christians are raving lunatics. And any no talent junk qualifies as art if it lets you act out your issues.
    The A List isn’t bad enough. You have to promote every piece of trash you can find, probably in order to derail our movement. Please. Get over the self hatred and stop making us all look like tasteless rubes.

  • Charles

    Please friends, educate yourself about the David Wojnarowicz, before making snap judgements…his life story, advocacy, and artwork should matter to all LGBTQ people.

  • SBNN

    It’s a tough one. When the nutbag in Florida wanted to hold Burn a Quran Day, I was appalled…but understood that this was freedom of speech. But still appalled. I’m not particularly opposed to exempting deliberately sacrilegious treatment of religious symbols from the freedom of speech protection…it seems likely to cause purposeful emotional distress without any benefit besides shock value. I still want to be able to burn a flag, though.

    I am bothered by the hypocrisy: crucifices are used in movies all the time, frequently in much more offensive manner, and yet the movies don’t get pulled. If ‘The Exorcist’ had shown a possessed girl masturbating with a menorah, would that have been different? It shouldn’t be. And does the Catholic Church allow these things because, in the end (of some of the movies) religion wins? Should that matter?

    Hey, watch me be chock full of sitting the fence!

  • edfu

    @Mark: Taxpayers paid nothing for this exhibit, which was funded entirely by private donations from those who know that art is more than Norman Rockwell and Charles Keene. The remarks from so many would-be art critics here prove the falsity of the canard that gay men are purportedly “artistic.” Ha.

  • Michael

    @edfu: The National Gallery, where this “art” was displayed, is part of the Smithsonian which is funded by taxpayers. The exhibit was sponsored by private donors, and they are free to haul this junk to an appropriate private venue, if desired. There is not a shortage of space available for bad taste.

  • MGangemi

    David Wojnarowicz and his partner were two of the most important photographers of their generation and you obviously haven’t a clue about art and it’s history. Art is a complicated discourse with a rich history, uneducated commentary about it is really rather worthless.

  • edfu

    @Michael: Anyone who thinks an art exhibition featuring such artists as Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, George Bellows, Walker Evans, Marcel Duchamp, Berenice Abbott, Grant Wood, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George O’Keeffe, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Charles Demuth, David Hockney, Agnes Martin, Andy Warhol, Nan Goldin, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Andrew Wyeth, Robert Mapplethorpe, and David Woynarowicz is “junk” and in “bad taste” knows absolutely nothing about art and its intents. Go back to your comic books.

  • Ralph T. Howarth, Jr.

    The federal government is not granted a constitutionally delegated power by the states to fund or run museums in the first place.

  • JusticeontheRocks

    Wonderful. Now we have a tea-bagger lecturing us about the role of government. Take your 1830s understanding of the world and go somewhere else.

    On another note, the “art is what I like and the rest of it is trash” mentality of some posters belongs in the old Soviet Union, not here.

  • JAW


    all of the Artists that you mention did great works, not so great works and some really bad works of art. The piece that was pulled was one of his really bad works and needed to be pulled.

    David Woynarowicz was known as a photographer, not a videographer, this work proves that his estate should concentrate on that part of his works.

  • robert in nyc

    In totalitarian regimes, the arts are always the first to come under attack, no matter how offensive some of it might be to some people. Art is meant to be provocative. This of course happened as a result of republican bigots endorsing censorship, religious beliefs trampling over freedom of expression rearing its ugly head again. Its obvious America has no problem with the doublestandard when it comes to freedom of expression. If it were art depicting the glorification of bashing and killing gays, bigots Donohue and orangeman Boehner wouldn’t utter one word to decry it, in fact they would welcome it. Hypocrites of the first order!

  • Helen Wheels

    @Michael: It’ not at the National Gallery, dumbass, it’s at the National Portrait Gallery. (And the National Gallery is NOT part of the Smithsonian.)

  • JAW

    @Helen Wheels:

    be nice helen… no need for name calling… Michael missed one word in his response…

    The exhibit is at the National Portrait Gallery… which is about one or 2 blocks from The National Gallery of Art.The gallery of art is commonly referred to as the National Gallery. The names of both museums are pretty close, so it is easy to make a mistake, esp. since the exhibit is not of all portraits.

    NOW… for your mistake… both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Art are parts of the Smithsonian Institution. which receives funding from Congress.

    I am sure that Michael will accept your apologizes for your unkind words.

  • peteNsfo

    I wonder how many defending this particular piece managed to watch the whole clip… ugh. Art is subjective, but be serious, that piece doesn’t belong at the Smithsonian. Religious enthusiasts have had a predictable response… and quite frankly, so have most of you.

    The whole episode shows why government will never be the keeper of the arts- it takes people with guts & money, creativity & commitment.

    Not every piece rises to the level of museum-worthy.

    I suppose all press is good press, because more people now know about this exhibit than ever would have otherwise.

  • ousslander

    I love how people say art is subjective and in the eye of the beholder then go on to attack someone for their opinion about the “art”. I guess it’s okay to have an opinion as long as it matches yours.

  • Charles

    In conclusion, many Queerty readers know little about the history of their community.

  • Andy

    The irony is that Wojnarowicz’s reading of his piece puts it smack in the middle of the great tradition of using images of Christ to speak about the suffering of all mankind. There is a long, respectable history of showing hideously grisly images of Jesus – 17th-century sculptures in the National Gallery’s recent show of Spanish sacred art could not have been more gory or distressing – and Wojnarowicz’s video is nothing more than a relatively tepid reworking of that imagery, in modern terms.

    This is so obvious in context that one simply wonders what on earth the fuss could be about. Maybe what is truly offensive to men like Donohue is the notion that gay men might actually seek refuge in Jesus’ similar experience of marginalized, stigmatized agony. Since the message cannot be objectionable – Jesus shares in our suffering and exemplifies it – maybe it is merely the association with gay men that appals. For the powerful and privileged like Donohue, Jesus belongs in the corridors of power and respectability, among the mainstream, depictions of him restricted to images of pristine, prissy reverence rather than the alienated, despairing, naked agony he actually suffered. The idea that Jesus died for homosexuals is insulting to Donohue; but it is what the church teaches and what Jesus lived.

  • Helen Wheels

    @JAW: This is from Wikipedia, Einstein:

    The National Gallery of Art is supported through a private-public partnership. The United States federal government provides funds, through annual appropriations, to support the museum’s operations and maintenance. All artwork, as well as special programs, are provided through private donations and funds. [b]The museum is not part of the Smithsonian Institution.[/b]

  • JAW

    @Helen Wheels:

    Helen… Thanks for the info… You enlightened Me. For the number of times I have been to the National Gallery. I never realized it was not a part of the S.I. The web site for the N.G.ofA. tells the history of how Congress passed the law to get it going and indeed it uses .gov for it’s web address. (

    But I’m not sure what you are trying to say. The exhibit in question is at the Portrait Gallery, a separate building 2 or so blocks from the Gallery of Art. The Portrait Gallery is a part the S.I. ( I tried to point out that there are 2 National Galleries in DC and perhaps Michael just forgot to add “Portrait”, just like u forgot to add “of Art”

    Both N.G.ofA. and the SI would not be able to stay open, and free for all to enter, were it not for large subsidies from Congress.

    This is not the first time, and I bet not the last time, that museums that receive public funding, from local, state and/or federal sources have removed pieces felt by some to be offensive.

    Again Helen, I do not feel it was necessary to try an berate a poster.


  • robert in nyc

    Ewe,No. 50….well said! Fuck religion I say and those who judge us.

    Javier, and government should not be granting tax-exempt status to religious cults that meddle in the political process either. Take your religion and shove it!

  • edfu

    They came first for the Communists,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

    Then they came for me,
    and by that time no one was left to speak up.

    –Martin Niemoller

  • Alex

    @Andy: Thank you, thank you! You are right!

Comments are closed.