The Washington Post and several other newspapers published articles this week on the recent backing of a Smithsonian official’s decision to pull a piece from an exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery when conservatives from Congress and the Catholic League freaked the fuck out (NYT):
The regents did not recommend that the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, G. Wayne Clough, step down, as some critics of the removal had called for since he decided to pull the video, called “A Fire in My Belly,” by David Wojnarowicz (pronounced voy-nah-ROH-vitch).
The four-minute video outraged the Catholic League and several members of Congress for its depiction of ants crawling on a crucifix, which they interpreted as sacrilegious and, in the words of Representative Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”
The board of regents have created a "troubling precedent" as officials from the Hirshorn have openly stated. I don’t care how they have it worked out: this is plain and simple censorship and Clough should have lost his job, not been supported. Admit the error, can the administrator and move on.
But here we are, with board-backed censorship. They've stated that it was a mistake, but have fallen short of restoring the exhibition to its initial extent. Can the Smithsonian institution be fully trusted in the future? The public funding argument is a smokescreen. We pay into public funds for expert officials to make decisions about where it’s spent, not the Catholic League or even worse, Republican politicians. The percentage is irrelevant.
This is bigotry poorly masked by outrage over blasphemy. It’s difficult for me to grasp exactly what’s sacrilegious about ants crawling on a crucifix. Ants aren’t exactly notorious carrion animals like flies, not to the extent of being typical symbols of decay. Even so, if the crucifix was covered in carrion insects, Christ’s body was supposedly hanging and decaying in the hot sun for hours and then in the tomb for days. Catholics wept in cathartic ecstasy over the realism of The Passion of the Christ, but suddenly draw the line at the realism of the infection and consumption of decaying flesh?
Besides, the Bible seems to be cool with ants in general. From Proverbs:
Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.*
But it’s not really about that, is it? It’s about homosexuality, really, the fact that the prejudicial ground conservatives have been inhabiting safely is slowly being eroded by recent legislation and the time to capitalize on permissible bigotry and the suppression of civil rights is being shortened. They’ll take what they can get, ride the religious sensitivity wagon for a bit to have the exhibit disrupted, only to turn around and whine about mosques at Ground Zero and the Liberal Support of Religions That Are Not Christianity.
So here’s the Smithsonian, encouraging this sort of behavior over such a trivial matter. The image isn’t even thematic; it’s a nuance, a brushstroke in a larger portrait. The Smithsonian seems to claim that a thoroughly presented explanation of the piece would have provided context and assuaged the anger. I doubt it. We’re talking about worldviews, and once you start pandering to one, you make exceptions across the board. Art isn’t strictly about sensitivity. Art is, and we react. As soon as we lose that distinction – the honesty – we lose everything valuable about it.
I grew up the DC area. We were at the Zoo or on the Mall at least once a month, so the Smithsonian Institution has played a big part in my education through the years. This debacle is disappointing, to say the least.
Bill Donohue and the Catholic League released a statement today. They aren't satisfied (surprise!), even though they supposedly got what they wanted:
Speaking of the artist who made the ants-on-the-crucifix video, the Smithsonian's John W. McCarter Jr. said, "I believe, in his mind, that [the video] was not sacrilegious." Did he stumble upon the diary of David Wojnarowicz? Has he been channeling him? McCarter also asks us to consider the possibility that the video "might have been very deeply religious?"
McCarter's subjectivism is unwarranted. We know some things about the artist, and what we know is that he branded the Catholic Church a "house of walking swastikas." So why is it so hard to connect the dots? Isn't it obvious the artist was a raging anti-Catholic bigot?
Donohue is saying that Catholics (more specifically, the Catholic League) are the only authority on the interpretation of their iconography and should be given the final say. That's not how a pluralistic society works. That's not how culture works. Ideas aren't pure. They aren't under special protections for certain groups. There is only subjectivism when it comes to religion and culture. It's not unwarranted; it's exclusive.
If a man like Wojnarowicz can insult Christians the way he did, knowing full well his sentiments on Catholicism, and he is still given the benefit of the doubt—even to the point of entertaining the fiction that his video is "very deeply religious"—then it is obvious what is going on.
If you don't want to see reinterpretations of your beliefs, of culture, then either look away or try to understand where they come from and maybe gain a new insight on how others perceive your traditions. Wojnarowicz went through a special hell in his lifetime and Christian bigotry, obviously, was a big part of his anger toward the Church. Homophobia isn't particular to Christianity, but Wojnarowicz was obviously most touched by those traditions. If he had experienced bigotry from the Muslim or Jewish communities and expressed it, I'm sure there would have been equivalent outrage. My opinion certainly wouldn't change. I don't know how the Smithsonian would have handled it.
Bigots complaining about bigotry. Clough and the board should think long and hard on how this was handled and make sure it doesn't happen again.
*It’s fun to quote the Bible out of context. Also, I like how this quote, when pasted into a Google search, returns headers like “What does the Bible say about money management?”