The National Portrait Gallery, part of the federally funded Smithsonian Institution, is presenting an exhibition that does exactly the opposite of what true art does.
When I studied English at Princeton, I had the good fortune to be taught by a series of scholars who in their lectures and precepts drove home the point that art, whether it be in literary or other form, must ultimately be measured by its capacity to make better human beings.
A work of art -- or alleged work of art -- can do only one of three things to a person's character: It can hurt it, improve it or have no impact at all.
A great work of art could have the third result through the sheer insentience of the consumer. Yet if a work is capable of taking serious hold of a person's heart and mind, the question that matters then is the condition in which it leaves that heart and mind. Whether it is a poem, a play, a painting, a symphony or a building, the issue is the same.
The great artists of the Renaissance understood their works this way. Michelangelo designed the dome of St. Peter's to lift hearts and minds to God. Shakespeare insisted Macbeth pay just consequences for his murderous acts. The creations of these two great artists hold the same power today they held almost five centuries ago.
Sir Philip Sydney, the Elizabethan poet and warrior, explained the Renaissance view in his "Apology for Poetry," in which he argued that poetry is superior to history and philosophy because it has a greater power to teach virtue.
Sydney said, "It is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet," but "it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by." The "final end" of poetry, he said, "is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of."
"I affirm," Sidney concluded, "that no learning is so good as that which teacheth and moveth to virtue, and that none can both teach and move thereto so much as Poetry, then is the conclusion manifest that ink and paper cannot be to a more profitable purpose employed."
So to what purpose is the National Portrait Gallery employing ink and paper and other assets these days? Is it trying to move men to virtue?
As first reported by Penny Starr of CNSNews.com, the NPG is running an exhibit through the Christmas season called "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture."
A plaque at the entrance to the exhibition says it is "the first major exhibition to examine the influence of gay and lesbian artists in creating modern American portraiture" and that it illustrates "how, as outsiders, gay and lesbian artists occupied a position that turned to their advantage, making essential contributions to both the art of portraiture and to the creation of modern American culture."
One of the "essential contributions" in the exhibition is a photograph that shows two naked blood brothers kissing each other while one holds a gun to the other's chest.
"The image transgresses many dualisms we use to structure society: male versus female, black versus white, 'brotherly love' versus homosexual desire," says a label fixed to the wall of the museum beside the photograph. "And it raises provocative questions surrounding themes of domestic abuse between lovers, perceived violence among black men, and the dangers that come from engaging in an 'illicit' love -- whether it be from disease, homophobia, or a lethal combination of the two."
Another "essential contribution" featured in the exhibition is a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of two men in chains.
"In this playful inversion of the classic family photograph, leather-clad Brian Ridley sits in an ornate wingback chair, chained and shackled to his dominant, horsewhip-wielding partner, Lyle Heeter," says the NPG's description of the photo.
"Far from submissive, Ridley's wide-legged stance, upright posture, and direct address to the camera indicate that he willingly acts out his chosen sadomasochistic role," says the NPG description. "The machismo of the couple's leather gear is undercut by the flamboyance of their living room -- replete with an Oriental rug, pewter vases, sculpted lamp and clock, and grasscloth wall covering. That this homosexual S&M ritual takes place in the context of the couple's 'normal' life (which also includes antique collecting) powerfully challenges what it means to be a 'normal' or 'domestic' couple."
A video on display at the exhibition showed an ant-covered crucifix, a man's mouth being sewn shut, mummified humans and the frontal image of a naked man lying on a bed. On Tuesday afternoon, after Starr's report appeared on CNSNews.com, the NPG removed this video from its show.
But this tax-funded museum kept the photos of sadomasochistic couple and the naked brothers kissing each other -- and other like-spirited images.
Is the Smithsonian Institution trying to move Americans to virtue through this exhibit? No. It is trying to mainstream vice and perversion. The National Portrait Gallery's "Hide/Seek" exhibition does not celebrate art, it murders it.