A Fire in Her Belly: Penny Starr, the Conservative Activist Who Punked the Smithsonian
A number of heroes and villains have emerged in the controversy following the Smithsonian Institution’s decision to remove a video work by David Wojnarowicz on display at the National Portrait Gallery. Victoria Reis, director of scrappy D.C. nonprofit Transformer, quickly showed A Fire in My Belly after it was taken down last week. On the other side of the coin, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough is seen as the shadowy hand who pulled Wojnarowicz over National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan’s objections.
Yet the role of Penny Starr remains hazy. A reporter and conservative advocate, she deserves much credit for both instigating the censorship—and ensuring that the artwork is seen by many, many more people than it otherwise would have.
A Fire in My Belly is in truth a fairly minor artwork by Wojnarowicz. It’s not even the most prominent piece by the artist on display in “Hide/Seek,” the National Portrait Gallery show. Crucially, however, it displayed a few moments’ worth of a crucifix being treated in a nonreverential manner, which was enough for Starr to do her work.
Starr is employed by the Media Research Center, a group that should not be confused with, well, a media research center. Nestled in a small business park in Old Town Alexandria, the organization was founded by conservative talking head Brent Bozell in 1987.
The Media Research Center pursues conservative advocacy through a number of outlets whose ostensible goals are not activist in nature. One of those is CNSNews.com, home to the Cybercast News Service—formerly the Conservative News Service—a Web-based newsroom of about a dozen reporters, aggregators, and content producers.
Starr, who did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story, is one of them. As a reporter for CNSNews.com, she lambasted the Richmond Visitors Bureau this September for a campaign to “attract homosexuals to Virginia’s capital.” This summer, she condemned the Library of Congress for an exhibit on Bob Hope that included a film clip of Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert interviewing D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton instead of simply focusing on Hope’s participation in the United Service Organization.
Starr is not merely a reporter for the Media Research Center. She represents the senior citizen’s perspective on a panel for a webcast feature called “The Girls”—think a conservative The View. Starr’s writing is frequently crossposted on Newsbusters, a website devoted to “Exposing & Combating Liberal Media Bias.”
She’s also a sort of congressional outreach figure. According to an e-mail obtained by Talking Points Memo blogger Brian Beutler, Starr wrote to House and Senate leaders from both parties asking for feedback on her National Portrait Gallery story.
“The federally funded National Portrait Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian, is running an exhibition through the Christmas season that features an ant-covered Jesus and what the Smithsonian itself calls ‘homoerotic’ art,” wrote Starr in her e-mail. “Should this exhibition continue or be cancelled?”
Starr’s push-polling e-mail offered a carrot to those who are sympathetic to her agenda as well as a stick to those who might prefer not to respond. “My deadline for a response is 1 p.m. and we are posting a story at 1:30 p.m. that will contain the leaders’ response or lack thereof.”
Predictably, flacks for House Speaker–designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader–designate Eric Cantor (R-Va.) were quick to provide Starr with talking points. This is hardly organic outrage from Republican House leadership. A Boehner spokesman later acknowledged the congressman had not seen the exhibit.
“Officials at the National Portrait Gallery on Tuesday removed a work of video art depicting Christ with ants crawling over him after complaints from a Catholic organization and members of Congress,” reported The Washington Post’s Jacqueline Trescott. In a lede typical of mainstream media reports on the controversy, it fails to reveal the central role of the Media Research Center in manufacturing the outrage.
Not only did a Media Research Center reporter pitch the outrage to leaders in Congress, but Bozell sits on the board of advisors of the Catholic League.
Indeed, the Catholic League has perfected a script developed by the Parents Television Council, which Bozell founded in 1995. The Parents Television Council exists largely to mob authorities with indecency complaints—a Web-based schoolmarm flash mob. In 2004, the Federal Communications Commission reported that the vast majority of complaints it received about indecency stemmed from the Parents Television Council.
So Bozell’s team cherrypicked the offense, manufactured the outrage, and then directed the response. The response was huge: Sullivan said the National Portrait Gallery had never heard such an outcry. But he also acknowledged it was likely that none of the plaintiffs had in fact seen and been scandalized by the artwork in person.
The Smithsonian not only bit on the outrage, but it also accepted that the outrage was organic. “One of the exhibition’s 105 works—a short segment in a four-minute video created as a complex metaphor for AIDS—was perceived by some to be anti-Christian,” said a brief statement released by the Smithsonian on Monday. “It generated a strong response from the public.”
But the last laugh may be on Starr and Bozell. Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly is now guaranteed a place alongside Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography. Those artworks and those artists’ reputations have not suffered as a result of conservative demagoguery.
Arts organizations beyond Transformer are making sure the work will be seen. New York gallery PPOW, which represents Wojnarowicz’s estate (the artist died from AIDS-related illness in 1992), has offered to provide the video to any organization that wishes to take the gallery up on it.
The New Museum in New York has installed the video in its lobby, the first major institution to do so. The Indianapolis Museum of Art will hang a poster Wojnarowicz designed—prophetically, an anti-bullying message—as part of a solidarity campaign spearheaded by the ARTINFO blogger Tyler Green. London’s Courtauld Institute of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago are hosting panels and screenings.
One place where it cannot be seen: D.C. Transformer’s protest screening has already ended, and no other D.C. organization has taken up the torch. (Two protesters did on Saturday, using an iPad to display the artwork inside the National Portrait Gallery, which led the Metropolitan Police Department to detain them and issue them notices banning them from the Smithsonian.) In Washington, it seems, conservative activists are the curators.