On Thursday, National Public Radio's Morning Edition decided to revisit the censorship controversy over the National Portrait Gallery removing a video image of ants crawling on a crucifix in an ideological exhibit promoting homosexuality. (The show closes Sunday.) The irony or the outrage in this story is that the "villains" of this piece -- conservative Christians and Republican politicians -- were not allowed to speak. NPR reporter Neda Ulaby quoted only the two left-wing curators of the exhibit, a left-wing critic for the Village Voice, and a left-wing man protesting the apparently ruined exhibit.
The most outrageous part was this soundbite of co-curator Jonathan Katz: "It's no longer the same game that it was 15, 20 years ago, where you simply had to point out the homo and yell 'Kill it!' And the mob attacked. Now, you have to clothe your homophobia in something else."
A story this biased makes it worth pointing out that Neda Ulaby is a lesbian journalist and activist who found this NPR job through the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. The Advocate celebrated a list of openly gay people with cool careers and explained:
When she quit as managing editor of the Chicago gay paper Windy City Times to join National Public Radio in 2000, she recalls, “I went from having my own staff to being the mail opener for the arts desk.” But Ulaby stayed on after that first month, and within a few years she worked up to her current position as arts reporter. “I say a prayer of thankfulness every day, multiple times,” says Ulaby, who connected with NPR through a workshop at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association convention in 1999.
Ulaby is a regular at gay activist confabs. She and openly gay NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro moderated panels at the International Gay and Lesbian Leadership Conference in 2006. She was a panelist at the NLGJA convention in 2009 in Montreal, touted for how she works "every day to promote balanced and responsible news coverage." That would sound very odd -- but what NLGJA means by "balanced" is actually Orwellian. It means "promotes homosexuality without balance."
The NPR story began with serious dishonesty, begging for rebuttal, that the show wasn't political, or meant to be controversial:
STEVE INSKEEP, anchor; Next week, the National Portrait Gallery bids goodbye to a controversial exhibit. It gained less attention for whats in it than what was taken out, a video that shows a crucifix covered in ants. It was part of the first gay and lesbian themed show at the Smithsonian Institution. When it opened last fall, one of the curators told NPR's Neda Ulaby he did not expect controversy.
Mr. DAVID WARD (Curator, National Portrait Gallery): We're not doing Up with Gay People. We're not doing a political exhibition.
INSKEEP: It became political. Conservative members of Congress called for the exhibit's cancellation. And then the video's removal infuriated the art world.
Days before the show closes, Neda Ulaby revisited the Portrait Gallery.
NEDA ULABY: David Ward is an unlikely culture warrior. He's a straight American history scholar and a self-described bureaucrat who's worked for the Smithsonian for 30 years.
Mr. WARD: It's been interesting since last we talked.
ULABY: Ward says he believed from the beginning, that the art would speak for itself.
Mr. WARD: the show deals with masterpieces by major American artists. It doesnt deal with weird, strange outsider artists; it ideals with canonical figures.
ULABY: Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Thomas Eakins.
Mr. WARD: This is mainstream America. We thought that the art would carry our argument.
ULABY: But the argument, that gay, lesbian and queer contributed to American culture, was apparently too much for some conservative members of Congress. They wanted the show cancelled. It's unclear if any of them saw it.
See the smear? Ulaby didn't seem to ask a conservative member of Congress if they saw it: she just asserted it without apparently asking.
It's actually a fairer question to ask if NPR and the curators saw it. It's there, in black and white, their political aims, in the exhibit program, and on the wall in the museum. They wanted to strike a blow for “the struggle for justice, so that people and groups can claim their full inheritance in America’s promise of equality, inclusion, and social dignity.” That's not political? That's not "Up With Gay People"?
Anyone who saw the exhibit would also know there were "weird, strange outsider artists" in it, starting with the star of the censorship battle, David Wojnarowicz, who clearly loathed Jesus and Christians. (Let's recall again, not just the ants on the crucifix, but the ghoulish, green, disembodied Jesus head in his painting "The Death of American Spirituality," which was not in the exhibit, but underlines the artist's loathing.) The exhibit had plenty of trendy gay artists from the last three decades, not just "canonical figures."
You can't in any way call the art in this exhibit "mainstream America." Anyone who does is a con man, or someone who never gets outside the hermetically sealed leftism of the "art world."
In the "art world," there are very one-sided debates where conservatives are smeared as Nazis and the American Taliban, and no one in the liberal media seems to see the need for an opposing view. See Neda Ulaby. She just lets these curators smear at will.
Here's another marker that Ulaby didn't seem to follow this controversy in the media. She cited only the Catholic League in the battle, especially as where the controversy started. Actually, the Catholic League's own initial press release collegially cited a news story by Penny Starr of CNSNews.com (a division of the MRC).
ULABY: The controversy started when the Catholic League targeted a video in the show by artist David Wojnarowicz called "Fire in My Belly."
Dr. JONATHAN KATZ (Curator): "Fire in My Belly" offers among the most poignant and powerful images of what it was like to live with AIDS.
ULABY: That's curator Jonathan Katz. He says Wojnarowicz worked on the video while his lover, while much of his community, was dying from AIDS.
The video includes 11 seconds of large black ants crawling on a small plastic crucifix. The League blasted out emails calling it Catholic-bashing, a full month after the show opened.
Dr. KATZ: In my more paranoid moments, I'm often wondering if the reason it took them a month to attack the show was that they were actually focus grouping, trying to figure out what the proper handle to get at the exhibition would be.
ULABY: There's a long history of loud fights over controversial art in museums with public funding; from Andre Serrano's "Piss Christ" to Robert Mapplethorpe's unsettling photographs of gay leather culture.
Dr. KATZ: It's no longer the same game that it was 15, 20 years ago, where you simply had to point out the homo and yell, kill it, and the mob attacked. Now, you have to clothe your homophobia in something else.
ULABY: Bullying the gays may no longer be socially acceptable, says Jeff Weinstein, who covered the art controversies of the 1980s and '90s for The Village Voice. Whats different this time, he says, is the Internet.
Mr. JEFF WEINSTEIN (Journalist): Basically the right wing bloggers pushed it along very quickly, much more quickly than that would have been possible in the past.
ULABY: The Portrait Gallery got over a thousand emails and letters, criticizing the show - every single one of them after the Catholic League's callout. The head of the Smithsonian ordered the video pulled, and that was wrong, according to an internal review by the Smithsonian's board of regents.
Notice how Dr. Katz gets to describe his "paranoid moments" with the religious conservatives mysteriously having to hold focus groups to determine if putting big black ants on a plastic crucifix of Jesus might seem offensive. Religious conservatives don't get a phone call from the taxpayer-funded activists at National Public Radio.
Katz's story of a "Kill it" mob is not only beyond outrageous. It misleads people about what actually happened in 1991 over Serrano and Mapplethorpe. Conservatives weren't calling for murder, just for denying subsidies to bizarre "transgressive" artist-activists. Conservatives were outraged that the National Endowment for the Arts would fund artists like the maker of "Piss Christ," or Mapplethorpe's sadomasochistic images (most infamously, one with a bullwhip up an anus). Liberal media largely came to the artists' defense, and the NEA suffered some bad publicity, but no reduction in funding -- at least, until conservatives took over Congress in 1995. This might be what the Village Voice writer means by today's faster outrage cycle.
Ulaby wrapped up by celebrating Wojnarowicz as a "free-speech cause celebre" and covering the left-wing protest trailer outside the gallery:
ULABY: Wojnarowicz's video has been viewed online more than a million times. And it's been screened, in solidarity, by galleries nationwide, including a temporary one right outside the Portrait Gallery.
ULABY: Members of D.C.'s artistic communities scraped together $6,000 to plant this nondescript trailer just 50 feet from the Portrait Gallery entrance. The video plays on a continuous loop. Organizers say 5,000 people have seen it here, so far.
Mr. DEREK SMITH (Attorney): It is very provocative.
ULABY: Derek Smith is a lawyer. He wandered in during lunch. He stood in his winter coat and absorbed the video's surreal images: The crucifix, coins falling in a bowl of blood, red string stitching a mouth shut.
Mr. SMITH: I'm glad that I'm seeing it, and I would be sort of disturbed to be denied the ability to see something like this, cause it is - I definitely would consider it art, without a doubt.
ULABY: As for the artist, David Wojnarowicz, journalist Jeff Weinstein, who knew him, is not sure what he'd make of the controversy today.
Mr. WEINSTEIN: If he were alive, he would be so thrilled that people weren't dying; gay men weren't dying right and left, all over, dropping. I don't know what he would make of it, because the world is a different place.
ULABY: Wojnarowicz's video was recently purchased by the Museum of Modern Art. The show it was removed from, "Hide/Seek" at the National Portrait Gallery, closes the day before Valentines Day.
NPR's anchor then promoted visual images from the exhibit on NPR.org -- and typically, none of them show nudity, even though many art works in the exhibit do -- like this larger-than-life 8 foot-by-5 foot nude Frank O'Hara. Once again, as with the NEA controversies in the 1990s, the media often censor the controversial pieces that spur debate over taxpayer-funded art.