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A Manufactured Controversy Masterpiece

It took three tries for the Media Research Center to parlay its hatred of liberal content in museums into a major issue, but it finally succeeded with an attack on a gay-related exhibit.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 12/7/2010

The controversy over a gay-themed exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery was entirely manufactured by the Media Research Center -- but it was far from the first time the MRC tried to parlay its distaste for liberal content in museums into a hot-button issue.

The point person for generating this controversy was reporter Penny Starr, and she has done this sort of thing before.

She jumped into the museum criticism business by building an entire March 18 article around the complaint that a Smithsonian exhibit called "What Does it Mean to Be Human?" -- which examines human origins -- lacks "references to God, creationism, or pre-natal existence." Even worse in Starr's eyes, the exhibit "says fossils 'provide evidence that modern humans evolved from earlier humans.'" Starr went on to display her bias to the exhibit curator by specifically asking "why the exhibit does not include any reference to God or address the debate – even in scientific circles – about Darwinian evolution," and "why an exhibit on human origins does not include any references to human beings as they develop from conception to birth in the womb."

By contrast, when Starr wrote in October 2009 about a new documentary created by the right-wing activist group Citizens United "using in the founders’ own words to describe how God played a role in America becoming a nation of religious liberty and tolerance," she merely noted that the film "is not a commentary on the Founding Fathers’ theology or lack thereof" but did not pepper narrator Newt Gingrich or producer David Bossie on why the film avoided addressing secularism or deism among the Founding Fathers. Instead, she uncritically quoted Bossie as asserting that the film provides "an accurate reflection of history" and Gingrich's claim that "It’s a story, which is in many ways, profoundly different than the secular version that is now authorized in the government schools."

Starr played museum critic again in a June 14 article, complaining: "A new exhibit at the Library of Congress is dedicated to the memory of entertainer Bob Hope, but it 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." But reading further into Starr's article, it's clear that the exhibit, "Hope for America: Performers, Politics and Pop Culture," is not solely about Hope but about the intersection of politics and entertainment. Starr can't quite deny that Hope was one of the pioneers of topical humor that took jabs at politicians, yet she grumbles that "the overall theme of the exhibit highlights political protest and activism – something that, by all accounts, Hope avoided even as he became a regular at the White House over the course of 11 U.S. presidencies."

Later in the article, Starr was forced to concede that Hope's family approved of the exhibit and that it also includes conservatives such as Lee Greenwood, Pat Boone and Sonny Bono. Starr also conceded that Hope himself became actively political in the Vietnam years.

Despite Starr's misguided criticism, her boss, Media Research Center chief Brent Bozell, built his June 18 column around it, asserting that the Library of Congress designed the exhibit to, in Bozell's words, "unveil a leftist political agenda, the likes of which Bob Hope would be the first to denounce." Nearly all the details Bozell provides are straight from Starr's article, and there's no evidence he viewed the exhibit before criticizing it.

That indifference to the facts would seem to provide the perfect explanation for why Starr is employed by the MRC -- and offer a foreshadowing of how the MRC would handle a museum controversy that finally got it some attention.

In a Nov. 29 CNS article, Starr wrote:

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, the Breitbart empire weighed in, and Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity ranted about it on Fox News. Even Newsmax latched onto the story.

If it seems more than a little convenient that top congressional Republicans told Starr they want the exhibit shut down, that's because she trolled for a response from them. Talking Points Memo obtained a copy of the email she sent out to congressional leaders, which played up the "homoerotic" and "ant-covered Jesus" stuff in a way that appears calculated to generate a response from Republicans.

Starr's boss joined the battle as well -- Bozell demanded 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 such matters as factual accuracy don't matter to Bozell 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."

But, really, the crux of the issue is gay-related stuff that comes anywhere near federal funding.

In her article, Starr quoted a representative of the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute (which, of course, she didn't identify as conservative) as saying that even though no federal funds went toward acquiring the exhibit, "most of the overall budget derives from tax monies for the facility, and maintenance and staff. Second, the exhibit appears inside and is monitored by staff. Finally, if it was funded only by outside funding the exhibit would be outside in a snowdrift."

Starr then quoted "Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute and a former senior economist on the congressional Joint Economic Committee" -- because who's more qualified to discuss art than an economist? -- asserting, "If the Smithsonian didn't have the taxpayer-funded building, they would have no space to present the exhibit, right?" Edwards added: "Think about the Washington Post. ... They don't have to publish every op-ed that they get, right? They own the platform. In this case [the Smithsonian Institution], the taxpayers own the platform and so the taxpayers should decide what is presented on that platform."

The attention paid off, and Starr, Bozell, and the MRC got a pound of flesh out of the deal -- the Smithsonian pulled the ants-on-Jesus video. But that wasn't enough. The headline on Starr's Nov. 30 CNS article on the video being pulled reads more like a list of demands: "Smithsonian Pulls Video of Ant-Covered Jesus But Leaves Images of Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, Men in Chains, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts."

Meanwhile, Bozell continued to exploit the controversy his organization created. He whined about it in a rare non-Fox News appearance on CNN, where he engaged in an even-more-rare debate with another guest with a differing opinion, in which he made it even more clear how anti-gay his agenda is:

Look, if you like depictions of sadomasochism where you have a mummified human remains, if you have a portrait of a man eating himself, if you like homoerotic art -- calling it art -- all sorts of male genitalia, a portrait of -- called Two Brothers, kissing -- two naked men making out, and they're brothers. If you are into religious bigotry, and you like this kind of things with ants walking all over the Lord Jesus Christ -- and this man to say it's not sacrilegious. Of course it's sacrilegious. If you like that, fine. There's a place in some seedy art something somewhere for you to watch it, that's your business.

As Media Matters' Todd Gregory pointed out, Bozell invoked classic stereotypes used to define gay people, especially gay men, as deviants -- which has nothing whatsoever to do with the MRC's professed mission of fighting what it perceives to be liberal bias in the media. Or, as Media Matters summed up in a separate item, the MRC is about nothing more than "hating all things liberal, real or imagined."

Bozell's counterpart on CNN, Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik, was a much more stable presence, pointing out that Bozell's shrill portrayal of the exhibition as offensive was merely his opinion and that the genuine question at hand is "do we want to have museums that show the best art they can have?"

Another presence in the fray is Bill Donohue of the Catholic League. Despite his long history of homophobic remarks -- i.e., he believes that gays should “apologize to straight people for all the damage that they have done” -- both the New York Times and the Washington Post contacted him for reaction to the exhibition. He responded exactly how you'd expect he would; he sneered to the Times that “I’m not going to buy the argument that this is some statement about some poor guy dying of AIDS. Was this supposed to be a Christmas present to Catholics?”

Yet Donohue appears to be a cog in the MRC's wheel of outrage. Bozell is on the Catholic League's board of advisors, and he slobbered all over Donohue in a 2009 column:

There are an awful lot of people I know in the world of public policy, many of whom I respect and admire. But beyond respecting his wisdom and admiring his courage, I just plain like Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League. I like his Irish feistiness. I like his sense of loyalty. I like his sense of humor. Most of all, I like how he drives his opponents mad. And with his new book, "Secular Sabotage: How Liberals are Destroying Religion and Culture in America." he could be expected to be stricken from all manner of Christmas card lists -- except the people he skewers don’t believe in Christmas.

Disclaimer: I’m on the Board of Advisors of the Catholic League. I’ve been involved with this terrific organization for many years because Bill Donohue invited me, and I’ve never been able to refuse Bill Donohue anything.

Meanwhile, Bozell himself played art critic in his Dec. 3 column, declaring that if he doesn't like it, or if it involves gays, it isn't art. Bozell repeatedly put "art" in scare quotes when discussing the works he has targeted:

But apparently this gay and lesbian “art” needs to push more, more, evermore. So we have depictions of homoeroticism, including images of male genitalia on display; pinups of naked men, and paintings of two brothers, buck naked, making out. Still there must be more, so we have sadomasochistic themes, like imagery of mummified human remains and a portrait of a man devouring himself. Each has a “deep” meaning, see. Each is “art.”

Bozell also falsely portrayed the exhibition as being funded by taxpayers:

And you, American taxpayer, you are making it possible. Your $761 million annually to the Smithsonian, and $5.8 million annually to the National Portrait Gallery makes it possible for these gay activists to pitch their tents inside, put up their displays, call it “art,” invite the world – even children on “Family and Friends Day” on November 21 – and then scream bloody murder when someone complains.

Additionally, he didn't mention that the person who first complained about the exhibit -- Penny Starr -- is on his payroll.

Meanwhile, the self-appointed art critic impulse was spreading throughout the MRC. One of Bozell's lieutenants, director of media analysis Tim Graham, took a stab at it in a Dec. 6 NewsBusters post, saying pretty much the same thing that Bozell did: if it's gay and offends him, it's not art.

Graham repeatedly dismissed the interpretations of the exhibit's art provided by the artists themselves -- since they are the creators, one would think they might know something about what they were trying to accomplish -- and was determined only to mock and take offense. Of one piece, described as “candies individually wrapped in multicolored cellophane,” described by the artist as an allegory for the loss of weight of his partner as he died of AIDS, Graham harrumphed: "How difficult is it to pour a pile of candies into a corner? Children could do that."

Finally, Graham whined about how "in contemporary art, there is no equality for traditional values" and that "museums want to take money from the unsophisticated majority (what Mencken called the 'booboisie') to promote the 'influential marginality' and 'creative resistance' of gay artists and writers."

Anyone who thinks art is illegitimate solely because of the sexual orientation of the artist isn't exactly the kind of person who should be deciding what should or should not be displayed in a museum. Yet Bozell, Starr, and Graham have done exactly that. The difference is that most willfully ignorant art critics don't have the backing of a multimillion-dollar organization and like-minded outlets to disseminate their ignorance.

That fact that such ignorance has gotten as far as it has -- even when the MRC's motivations are so obviously unconnected to merit and blatantly hostile to a specific segment of the population -- is a testament to how utterly fabricated this controversy is.

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