Joel Wachs weighs in on Smithsonian controversy

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National Portrait Gallery/AP Photo

This undated handout photo provided by the National Portrait Galley shows the camouflage self-portrait of Andy Warhol, part of an exhibit entitled 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,' which opened Oct. 30 and runs through Feb. 13, 2011. The installation will feature 105 works by such masters as Thomas Eakins, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and others.

A new battle in the culture wars is in progress in Washington, D.C. It focuses on a snippet of video within a Smithsonian art exhibition. Now, a former LA City Councilman has jumped into the fray.

These days, former LA City Councilman Joel Wachs heads the Warhol Foundation in New York. It gave $100,000 to the Smithsonian for “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” the first major museum exhibition on the how homosexual identity plays a role in the making of modern American portraits. It opened at the end of October at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

One installation in the exhibition – an artist’s video response to the AIDS epidemic - contained an 11-second image of a crucifix crawling with ants. The Catholic League labeled it hate speech, and the Smithsonian pulled the clip.

The Warhol Foundation told the Smithsonian that if it didn’t return the work to the exhibit, the foundation wouldn’t fund any more exhibitions there.

Wachs says, "the defense of freedom of expression is an ongoing and everlasting vigilance, you just always have to always be prepared for this type of attack and when they do, you can’t just sit back, you’ve got to take action."

In this case, he says, the Warhol Foundation was "putting our money where our mouth is." Over the past three years, the Warhol Foundation has given the Smithsonian $375,000.

In a statement, Smithsonian Institution officials said they stand by the decision to remove the video.

Republican Congressman Jack Kingston of Georgia has suggested the entire Smithsonian budget be scrutinized. Wachs says the arts "can’t flourish in an environment where there’s an attack on freedom of expression."

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