Dec. 3, 2010— -- A provocative video depicting ants crawling over a likeness of Jesus on a crucifix has been pulled from the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, sparking a debate over art, sacrilege and freedom of speech.
The four-minute video clip -- "A Fire in My Belly" by artist David Wojnarowicz -- was part of the first national art exhibit of works featuring sexual orientation and gender identity in American art. "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" opened in October. It also features works by Georgia O'Keefe, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Annie Leibowitz.
The video drew sharp criticism from conservative groups following publication of a CNS news service article Monday with the headline: "Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus, Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts."
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, called Wojnarowicz's video "hate speech" meant to denigrate Christianity.
Several Republican leaders, including incoming House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have said they will examine taxpayer funding for the Smithsonian in the wake of the controversial display.
"Absolutely, we should look at their funds," Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, told Fox News. "If they've got money to squander like this – of a crucifix being eaten by ants, of Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, men in chains, naked brothers kissing – then I think we should look at their budget."
While the exhibition itself was privately funded, taxpayer dollars are used for general operations of the museum facilities and its staff.
The Smithsonian Institution received $636 million in federal funding in 2010. The National Portrait Gallery received $5.8 million.
Smithsonian Institution president Wayne Clough said he decided Tuesday to pull the video from the display. In a memo to museum staff, Clough wrote that his decision was "not made lightly or in a vacuum" and suggested he didn't want controversy over the video to distract from the rest of the exhibition.
"I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious," said National Portrait Gallery director Mark Sullivan in a statement. "In fact, the artist's intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. It was not the museum's intention to offend."
Smithsonian Institution spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said the removal of Wojnarowicz's work was unprecedented. The gallery has never before pulled a piece out of an exhibition because of public outcry.
She said that prior to publication of the CNS article the museum had received no complaints about the video, which she described as a small part of the show.
"It was a small screen in an alcove of the exhibit, and you had to push a button on the screen to activate it," said St. Thomas.
Did Smithsonian Censor Artist's Work?
Wendy Olsoff, a co-owner of the New York City art gallery that manages Wojnarowicz's work, called removal of the video "censorship."
"This is about something more than David Wojnarowicz," she said. "It's a knee jerk reaction in response to attempts by the Catholic League to draw attention to what they're doing."
Olsoff said Wojnarowicz, who died in 1992 from complications of AIDS, frequently used animals and insects in his work to represent metaphors for interactions in human society.
"This was not hate speech," she said. "It's a compassionate look at how we live. He's overlaying the insect world on the human world.... And he used ants in a series of surreal images, using them on guns, clocks and toy soldiers."
But the Catholic League's Donohue called Wojnarowicz's intentions "unpersuasive."
"Let them next invite an artist to put their bugs on an image of Muhammad and then explain to Muslims that they never meant to offend them," he said.