Brent Bozell's real agenda: crippling the Smithsonian

Media Research Center president Brent Bozell took to CNN last night to make the outrageous accusation that the Smithsonian Institution has put on an art exhibit that would be appealing if “you are into religious bigotry.” In doing so, Bozell ignored reporting from his own organization and used a series of contentious descriptions of the works in the exhibit to incite anti-gay sentiment.

Bozell also has sent letters to Congress that purport to speak “on behalf” of “the overwhelming majority of Americans who call themselves Christian.” In the letters, Bozell demanded “Congressional hearings to investigate the Smithsonian Institution for its attack on Christian values and common decency.” The letters repeatedly reference the federal tax dollars that the Smithsonian receives.

This isn't just about Bozell's attempt to control what the public can and cannot see at museums. It's also about attempting to choke off public funding for the arts.

Here's how Bozell began his tirade against the exhibit, called Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, which is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington:

Look, if you like depictions of sadomasochism where you have a mummified human remains, if you have a portrait of a man eating himself, if you like homoerotic art -- calling it art -- all sorts of male genitalia, a portrait of -- called Two Brothers, kissing -- two naked men making out, and they're brothers. If you are into religious bigotry, and you like this kind of things with ants walking all over the Lord Jesus Christ -- and this man to say it's not sacrilegious. Of course it's sacrilegious. If you like that, fine. There's a place in some seedy art something somewhere for you to watch it, that's your business.

It's obvious that this litany of questionably accurate descriptions of the exhibit's artwork was designed to provoke anti-gay sentiment. Just look at the words Bozell uses: “sadomasochism,” “homoerotic art,” “male genitalia,” “two naked men.” These are invocations of classic stereotypes used to define gay people, especially gay men, as deviants.

As we've noted, such a description of the exhibit is simply not honest. While it is true that Hide/Seek deals with themes of sexuality and gender, a description like Bozell's cherry-picks the most provocative elements of an exhibit that includes works by artists like John Singer Sargent, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Andy Warhol. From the National Portrait Gallery's description of the exhibit:

This is the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture. “Hide/Seek” considers such themes as the role of sexual difference in depicting modern America; how artists explored the fluidity of sexuality and gender; how major themes in modern art -- especially abstraction -- were influenced by social marginalization; and how art reflected society's evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment.

The exhibition begins with late nineteenth-century works by Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent and charts the twentieth century with major works by such American masters such as Romaine Brooks, Marsden Hartley, and Georgia O'Keeffe. The exhibition arcs through the postwar period with major paintings by Agnes Martin, David Hockney, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol. It continues through the end of the twentieth century with works by Keith Haring, AA Bronson, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres about life, love and death during the AIDS crisis, and charts the vigorous reassertion of lesbian and gay civil rights in the twenty-first.

(Bozell's effort to prey on anti-gay sentiment in this situation fits in well with the MRC's decades-long losing battle to ostracize gay people.)

Furthermore, it seems that the only evidence that Bozell and the MRC have provided that the exhibit contains “religious bigotry” is that it included a video work called “A Fire in My Belly,” in which ants are shown crawling over a crucifix. I write “included” because the Portrait Gallery removed the video on Tuesday, more than a day before Bozell appeared on CNN to express his outrage.

The article that instigated this ginned-up controversy -- from CNS News, which is a division of Bozell's MRC -- featured a picture of the imagery in question:

There it is. Bozell's evidence that Congress should spend taxpayers' money to investigate a display of “anti-Christian bigotry” at the Smithsonian.

On an individual level, Bozell's sputtering declaration that this is most certainly “sacrilegious” is questionable -- Fox News' Juan Williams said on Hannity last night that “as a Christian,” it doesn't “blow [him] out.” But the CNS article itself provided a very specific explanation of why it is not sacrilegious [emphasis added]:

Through the NPG's external affairs office, [David C. Ward, a National Portrait Gallery historian who is also co-curator of the exhibit] and co-curator Jonathan D. Katz issued a statement to about the video “A Fire in My Belly.” It reads as follows:

“David Wojnarowicz went to Mexico and in Mexican life he found colorful metaphors for AIDS in America. Seeking to convey his anger at the American government for its inattention to AIDS he took images of suffering, marginality and extremity in an attempt to create and art that would awaken a sleeping populous.

”Katz feels that there is no more potent image of AIDS in America than the image of the construction workers [in the video] standing on the concrete that they are trying to remove from the wire suspended in the air.

"The crucifix, covered with ants, represents the lack of attention to Christian teachings in that Christian morality has been cast to the ground and the teachings of Jesus abrogated by speaking in his name. In the film this represents that the most vulnerable and the most in need are the most aggressively attacked."

And this is the main point about Bozell's objections to the contents of the exhibit. Bozell is a conservative activist who purports to detect “liberal bias” in the media.

He's entitled to his opinion, but his is not the final word on art.

During the CNN segment with Bozell, Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik repeatedly questioned Bozell's standing to made unilateral judgments about art. Gopnik said, “The question is, do we want to have museums that show the best art they can have?” As he turned to Bozell, he then asked the most important question: “Do we want to have art museums at all? No one objects to the National Gallery, that's full of pictures that everyone agrees are fantastic, wonderful works of world art. The question is, with contemporary art, who's going to decide that?”

When Bozell returned to calling works in the exhibit “offensive,” Gopnik interjected, “That you find offensive -- let's make it very clear -- that you find offensive. And lots of people don't. I don't.”

Later, Gopnik explained further: “It seems to me that we just have a very different notion about what art should do, maybe. I think that it's good that art is getting you angry. I think it's good that this stuff is provoking you. That's why some of this art was done. The brothers kissing is meant to be provocative. It's meant to make you wonder and think about these issues.”

Again, all this comes back to a very specific political agenda. Bozell wants a congressional investigation. “Americans will not rest until we receive answers to why this exhibit was approved, how the Smithsonian justifies using tax-payer dollars for such a display of anti-Christian bigotry, and what corrective actions will be taken,” he wrote in the letters to Congress.

It's wrong for Bozell to appoint himself the sole arbiter of what's acceptable art and what's not. Media outlets should keep that in mind when they're reporting on his campaign to attack the Smithsonian through congressional investigations.