Arts Desk

Penny Starr Returns With New Attack on Gays, National Portrait Gallery

Is Penny Starr losing her touch?

The activist-slash-journalist who launched the campaign that got a queer-themed artwork removed from the National Portrait Gallery is back—with, well, the exact same complaint about the same museum. But this year, her timing is off.

In late November 2010, Starr penned a complaint about "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," a portraiture show by LGBT artists at the National Portrait Gallery. Starr sought to portray a piece in the show, a video artwork by David Wojnarowicz called "A Fire in My Belly," as anti-Christian, since the video contained several seconds of footage of ants crawling across a crucifix.

That was, anyway, the complaint with the best hook to it—she insinuated that the work was offensive not just to Jesus but, given the timing, offensive to the entire abstract season of Christmas. Her story ran under this gobsmacker of a headline: "Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus, Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts." The holiday peg helped spread her story, but make no mistake, it's the sex that bothers her.

Starr's story served as the template for the subsequent Catholic League effort to spam the Smithsonian with manufactured outrage—which was a success. Martin Sullivan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, told me then that the museum received thousands of these complaints, all from people who had not ever seen the show, which had been up for a month by that point.

In her reporting on "Hide/Seek," Starr invited flacks for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to register the usual threats about cutting off public support for the arts. Shortly thereafter, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution G. Wayne Clough took the bait, pulling the Wojnarowicz video, a political blunder that garnered criticism from the art world and even earned Clough an informal rebuke from the Smithsonian itself.

Fast forward a year and, well, nothing happens. But fast forward a bit more than a year, and Starr is, once again, complaining about gay artwork at the National Portrait Gallery. In a story posted yesterday, Starr writes: "For the second year in a row, the federally funded National Portrait Gallery (NPG), a part of the Smithsonian Institution, held an exposition during the Christmas season focused on the homosexual lifestyle."

By "the homosexual lifestyle," she means Gertrude Stein, the subject of "Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories". Once again, the show opened in October; Starr is getting to this one late. And worse still, she's well past the Christmas peg she used to such great effect last time around. The show closes on Jan. 22; there are fewer than two weeks to get hysterical about it.

In her story, Starr includes correspondence with the National Portrait Gallery, whose Bethany Bentley responded with a statement that reads, in part:

Gertrude Stein, as our exhibition texts state, was one of America’s most widely-known 20th century writers. She experimented radically with language and reached across the arts in a transatlantic community befriending young writers like Ernest Hemingway and artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The fact that Stein was a lesbian did not influence why this exhibition was selected.

Apparently not satisfied, Starr posts photographs from the exhibition guide showing the queerest images of the show.

So far, Starr's story hasn't made a dent. The Smithsonian's Linda St. Thomas says that the Castle hasn't heard a word about it. And according to Sullivan, the National Portrait Gallery hasn't received any complaints about dear old Gertrude, either. "No comments posted to our social media pages, no phone calls or e-mails," he writes in an email. "And there haven't been any negative reviews anywhere of the Stein show itself—perhaps excepting Phil Kennicott's essay in the Post some weeks ago, which was really about his personal dislike of Stein." (Kennicott's review, which ran back in October, was rather more timely than Starr's.)

What would Stein herself say to Starr? Her bit on lawyers fits: "I understand you undertake to overthrow my undertaking."

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