Home > Aesthetics, Art, Art Notes, Culture, Insights and Commentary > Republican Influence Has Smithsonian Exhibit Pulled

Republican Influence Has Smithsonian Exhibit Pulled

December 3, 2010

[Image is “Dancer” by Marg Moll. The work is one of 11 sculptures condemned by the Nazis as “degenerate” that was unearthed in Berlin during excavations before the construction of a new underground line. The photograph shows the artwork after it was cleaned in October 2010. Photographer: Achim Kleuker/Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation via Bloomberg]

And so it starts again. Republicans are flexing their muscle on the subject of artistic expression. They started early, first the Smithsonian, next the cutting of funding for Corporation for Public Broadcasting…. PBS and NPR Radio. If you lke American Experience, NOVA, American Masters, etc, make sure to donate money to your local stations.

So, what we find is Republican Party leaders, John Boehner and Eric Cantor think they have the right to determine what is and what is not art. Art that does not align with their ideals is being called “counter to common standard of decency.” This is misuse of their public office and smacks of Big Brother telling free Americans what to think and feel. They are the self-proclaimed gatekeepers to what we can or cannot see, issuing the stamp of approval on what is and what is not acceptable. It is an affront to freedom loving, I-can-think-for-myself American individualism. As an artist, I find this intrusion of right-wing ideology highly offensive.

“When a museum receives taxpayer money, the taxpayers have a right to expect that the museum will uphold common standards of decency,” said Cantor. “The museum should pull the exhibit and be prepared for serious questions come budget time.”

No. We have a right see whatever is being shown without pre-filtering the art, otherwise known as censorship.

But they do not stop there.…. Both Boehner and Cantor said the National Portrait Gallery could expect to face tougher scrutiny next year when Republicans take over the House.

House Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Tuesday called for the dismantling of an exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery after they learned that it contains video of a Jesus statue with ants crawling on it, as well as works of art with strongly sexual themes.

Titled “Hide/Seek,” the exhibit is slated to run from Oct. 30 to Feb. 13. The conservative website CNS News.com first alerted the two Republican leaders to its content.

Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said, “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].” He later clarified that Boehner wanted the exhibit “cancelled.”

Cantor demanded that the exhibit be “pulled,” calling it “an outrageous use of taxpayer money.”

The #2 Republican in the House also took issue with the timing of the exhibit, which he labeled “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”

According to the Smithsonian’s website, the exhibit focuses on “how art has reflected society’s evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment.”

Among the works are paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns.

From the Huffington Post:

Hours after right-wing groups began to voice their opposition to the 11 second fragment of the video, the director of the Portrait Gallery announced that the piece would be removed. The reason? “Some of the accounts of this got out so virally and so vehemently,” said Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan, “that people were leaping to a conclusion that we were intentionally trying to provoke Christians or spoil the Christmas season.”

The path from David Wojnarowicz’s struggle with AIDS to the director of a Smithsonian museum announcing, ironically on World AIDS Day, that Wojnarowicz’s artwork might spoil someone’s Christmas, says a lot about American politics at the start of a new era of right-wing power. A Religious Right extremist generated controversy in the far-right base, found an eager echo chamber in the Capitol Hill GOP, and won an astoundingly easy instant victory over a skittish federal agency.

History of 1930s Artistic Oppression

Degenerate art is a throw back term used by Hitler and the Nazis to oppress artists in the 1930s. Fascist views held that only art that aligned with their ideals was acceptable. Those they deemed not acceptable were termed, degenerate.

In 1937, Nazi officials purged German museums of works the Party considered to be degenerate. From the thousands of works removed, 650 were chosen for a special exhibit of Entartete Kunst. The exhibit opened in Munich and then traveled to eleven other cities in Germany and Austria. In each installation, the works were poorly hung and surrounded by graffiti and hand written labels mocking the artists and their creations. Over three million visitors attended making it the first “blockbuster” exhibition.

Ironically, a new find of Degenerate Art has revealed a treasure trove of seized art by the Nazis:

Eleven sculptures by artists condemned as “degenerate” by the Nazis were unearthed from World War II rubble near Berlin’s city hall, where building is about to start on a new underground train line.

The sculptures, including bronzes by Edwin Scharff, Marg Moll and Karl Knappe, survived both the vilification of the Nazis and Allied fire-bombing in the war. The last objects in the trove were unearthed at the end of last month in excavations aimed at finding remnants of medieval history. The works will be exhibited at Berlin’s Neues Museum from tomorrow.

In 1937, the Nazis seized more than 20,000 modern works that they saw as contrary to Aryan ideals from German museums. That year, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels staged the exhibition “Degenerate Art,” which first opened in Munich, where it attracted more than 2 million people before moving on to other German and Austrian cities.

The Nazis auctioned the seized artworks 1938, mainly abroad for hard currency. What couldn’t be sold was stored in Berlin by a department of the Goebbels Propaganda Ministry. It is not yet known how the sculptures found their way to Koenigstrasse 50, the house that once stood on the site of the discovery.

Comments and Notes:
In response, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian noted that federal funding is not used to pay for exhibits, only infrastructure, curating of works, and staff. The exhibit itself was funded by a group of donors and foundations.

Update: The National Portrait Gallery agreed to remove one of the artworks from the exhibit late Tuesday. “A Fire in My Belly,” the video installation that depicts ants on a cross, was taken down.

Museum director Martin Sullivan said in a statement, “I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious.”

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