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Gertrude Stein, right, with longtime partner Alice B. Toklas, in a 1922 photograph by Man Ray, at the National Portrait Gallery
Gertrude Stein, right, with longtime partner Alice B. Toklas, in a 1922 photograph by Man Ray, at the National Portrait Gallery


Jan. 18, 2012

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Penny Starr, the conservative writer and activist who led the (successful) crusade to censor David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly (1987) at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., is back with a new outrage. Starr has taken offense at the museum’s current exhibition, “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories,” Oct. 14, 2011-Jan. 22, 2012, calling it another “exposition during the Christmas season focused on the homosexual lifestyle.”

In a long story for the right-wing Cybercast News Service last week, Starr reminds readers that during the winter of 2010 the National Portrait Gallery hosted “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” the exhibition of gay-themed art now at the Brooklyn Museum. The show included a four-minute excerpt of Wojnarowicz’s Fire in My Belly, a rapid video collage of Mexican street scenes, newspaper headlines, animals fighting and, for 11 seconds, ants crawling over a plastic crucifix.

In what has been christened the “The Anty Christ” scandal, the Catholic League claimed the video was an “attack on Christians” and lobbied Congress until it threatened to slash the museum’s funding. Smithsonian Institution buildings and operations are federally funded, but both “Hide/Seek” and “Gertrude Stein” were paid for by private donors. Nevertheless, the Smithsonian bowed to pressure and removed the video on Dec. 1, 2010.

Now, Starr has challenged the National Portrait Gallery to explain why two exhibitions in the last 14 months have been focused on “the homosexual lifestyle.” In a statement, the museum responded, “Gertrude Stein, as our exhibition texts state, was one of America’s most widely known 20th century writers. She experimented radically with language and reached across the arts in a transatlantic community befriending young writers like Ernest Hemingway and artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The fact that Stein was a lesbian did not influence why this exhibition was selected. Within the Portrait Gallery’s mission of interpreting significant and diverse individuals who influenced our national experience, she is an appropriate subject for a special exhibition.”

As for the purported insult to the “Christmas season,” the museum argued that “The timing of specific special exhibitions like these is affected by the size and complexity of proposed shows, space and fundraising considerations, the availability of appropriate objects, and the ongoing mix of short-term and long-term installations.”

For those who missed it in D.C., “Hide/Seek” is currently up -- with the Wojnarowicz work -- at the Brooklyn Museum until Feb. 12, 2012.

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