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Censored Art Causes Collision Between Artists and US Congress


Michael Iacovone recently he built a whole museum - inside a shipping container called the Museum of Censored Art. It is "parked" in front of the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery.

Michael Iacovone recently he built a whole museum - inside a shipping container called the Museum of Censored Art. It is "parked" in front of the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery.

Many artists are worried about artistic freedom in the US museums funded by Congress after a video was removed from one of them. Conservative lawmakers and a Catholic group had objected to the video's depiction of Jesus on the Cross. The removal was ordered by the head of the group of state-funded museums known as the Smithsonian Institution.

Michael Iacovone is an artist. But recently he built a whole museum - inside a shipping container. It's called the Museum of Censored Art and it is "parked" in front of the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery.

"A Fire in My Belly" is a short video that was recently removed from the Portrait Gallery because it shows ants crawling all over a Jesus' bloody body on a crucifix.

The video is the work of the late gay artist David Wojnarowicz. Iacovone says the creator intented the work to be about his crisis of faith.

"The artist was talking about his own plight with religion," Iacavone said, "and how he felt he was being marginalized in the late 80s due to the AIDS epidemic watching his partners and friends die and he himself was dying of AIDS as well."

"When I see somebody having ants crawling all over Jesus on a crucifix - Jesus on the cross, I know that wasn't done to endear themselves to the Catholic community," said William Donahue, president of the right-wing Catholic League.

After he criticized the museum last November, House of Representatives Speaker, Republican John Boehner threatened to cut off funding for the museums that make up the Smithsonian Institution. The video was removed within 24 hours.
Now free speech advocates and artists are crying foul.

"This is a museum for all the American people, and for anyone who visits this country, and because somebody got upset, nobody else gets to see the video," Iacavone said.

Art and religion have clashed before in America. In 1989, several lawmakers were furious over government funding for a work by artist Andres Serrano showing a crucifix in a glass of urine.

But now conservative Christians try to bolster their case by citing more recent controversies involving Islam's prophet. Last year a U.S. cable network altered a cartoon after receiving threats over its depiction of Muhammad in a teddy bear costume.
The controversy over the Wojnarovicz video began in October when the National Portrait Gallery opened an exhibition called Hide/Seek.

The exhibit focuses on gay and lesbian influence in American portraiture. There are works by Andy Warhol, Robert Morris as well as a self-portrait of Wojnarowicz.

The "Fire in my Belly" video was off the the side in a kiosk where it had to be selected from a menu. The controversial part was only about 10 seconds long.

"The Wojnarovicz 'Fire in My Belly' video was included because it's an anguished artistic expression of one man's and one artist's confrontation with AIDS," says David Ward, a co-curator of the exhibit.

But the Smithsonian Institution said in a statement that it removed the video because the controversy was overshadowing the exhibit.

Mike Blasenstein, a gay activist who is also involved with the Museum of Censored Art, doesn't accept that argument.

"People have a right to be offended by what they see," he said. "But our point is that people have a greater right to make up their own minds."

And many people are going from the exhibit to the Museum of Censored Art to make up their own mind about the video.

"I can see where people could have a problem with it," said Jillian Bucci. But she added that she still doesn't believe it should have been removed.

"Anything should be in a museum - people have the right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression and stuff like that," said her friend, Karin Esmieu.

But the controversy over the video hasn't been all bad for the National Portrait Gallery. Attendance is up 75 percent over last year.

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