The MRC's manufactured outrage over Smithsonian art exhibit

The third time's a charm for reporter and nascent museum critic Penny Starr.

In March, Starr complained that a Smithsonian exhibit asking “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” lacked “references to God, creationism, or pre-natal existence.” In June, Starr was annoyed that a Library of Congress exhibit on Bob Hope “focuses more on politics than it does on the legacy of a movie star who used his talents to support the U.S. military around the world,” seemingly ignoring that the exhibit focused on “performers, politics and pop culture.”

Those didn't get much attention. But now, one of her gems of museum criticism has finally hit the jackpot. In a November 29 article, she writes:

The federally funded National Portrait Gallery, one of the museums of the Smithsonian Institution, is currently showing an exhibition that features images of an ant-covered Jesus, male genitals, naked brothers kissing, men in chains, Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, and a painting the Smithsonian itself describes in the show's catalog as “homoerotic.”

The exhibit, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” opened on Oct. 30 and will run throughout the Christmas Season, closing on Feb. 13.

Bingo! Something about “homoerotic” and “ant-covered Jesus,” combined with a mention of the Christmas season, seems to have struck the right nerve among right-wingers. Drudge linked to it, and the Breitbart empire has weighed in. And it seems more than a little convenient that top congressional Republicans have told Starr they want the exhibit shut down, quickly followed by Starr's boss, the Media Research Center's Brent Bozell, demanding not just that the exhibit be killed but also that Congress investigate this “direct assault on Christianity.”

As Starr acknowledged in her article, the exhibit -- like every Smithsonian exhibit -- is not paid for by taxpayer funds. But Bozell doesn't care because, as he wrote in one of his letters to congressional leaders, "[i]t is housed in a federal institution funded by the American people."

Aside from the manufactured-outrage aspect, there's also some anti-gay dog-whistling going on. 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.

In other words, there's a lot more in this exhibit than Starr or Bozell would have you think.

By the way, this isn't the first time that Starr has complained about tax money being spent on gays; in September, she wrote that the Richmond, Virginia, tourism bureau, “which is funded in part by hotel taxes, is promoting an initiative by local businesses to attract homosexuals to Virginia's capital.”

The MRC's highly selective focus illustrates all too clearly just how manufactured the outrage is. This entire story seems calibrated more for Drudge and Breitbart immortality (and the website hits that would generate) than presenting actual issues in a reasoned manner.