Culture Wars – The Battle of the Art Museum.

Many moons ago, Crosby Stills Nash and Young had a song, Déjà Vu, which opened: “If I had ever been here before I would probably know just what to do”. I would like to suggest it should be adopted as a battle hymn for New York’s Brooklyn Museum of Art. Maybe they could pipe it in with the Muzak.

      The Brooklyn Museum of Art is under Right Wing attack. At controversy is an exhibit that opened Friday called “Hide/Seek”, a sympathetic and emotional depiction of the history of gays and lesbians in America through art. Included in the larger exhibit is a 1978 twenty-minute Super 8 film called “A Fire In My Belly” about the suffering of those afflicted with AIDS made by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, who died from the disease. 

     In late November of last year, William Donahoe, President of the Catholic League, long known for his Limbaugh-esque style of in-your-face bigotry, along with arch-conservative  Brent Bozel’s conservative advocacy group the Right Wing Research Center, and a James O’Keefe-like reporter from deliciously named Penny Starr, concocted a plan to sensationalize a twelve second scene in “Fire In My Belly” which uses an image of ants crawling on a crucifix to symbolize the human misery AIDS has caused. Ms. Starr began featuring the spot on her web-based newscast, then the three allies used the controversy Starr herself had drummed up to ask House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor to weigh in. As if on cue the House Republican Leadership threaten funding for the Smithsonian if it did not pull “Fire In My Belly”, even though the exhibit was privately funded and neither man had actually seen the movie.

.    The Smithsonian lost that battle. Badly. Surrendered, might be the more apt word choice. Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough, charged to stand for free speech and uncensored artistic expression at the nation’s premier museum, instead scurried for cover and stitched his knickers into a white flag of surrender, over the objections of the National Portrait Gallery’s Director Martin Sullivan, who wanted to join the fight. But fear not. That Battle of the Smithsonian may have been lost, but the war just might be won yet.

    His success at pressuring the Smithsonian into submission seems to have encouraged Donahoe to enact the same battle plan again: drum up controversy where there is none, then get politicians to threaten funding cuts because of the controversy. But good news! This time the battle has been joined. The Brooklyn Museum of Art has announced they will not be cowed by Donahoe and his shadowy conspirators, nor will they be persuaded by the threats of the New York State Senate, where Republican Senator Andrew Lanza has introduced a bill to kill all the museum’s public funding.

     If I were a betting person, I’d keep my money in my pocket on this one. Will Donahoe again get his way? Are there more dirty tricks up his sleeve? Will the Senate take up Lanza’s bill? Will the Museum stand firm? As Dylan said “The wheel’s still in spin, and there’s no tellin’ who that its naming.” Stay tuned. There’s nothing like a good holiday drama to put a little excitement the season.

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