Smithsonian backing censorship

Feb 03 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

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?”

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3 responses so far

  • brooksphd says:

    Amen.

    I heard that a museum/gallery in NYC has picked up this piece, (although, of course, that doesn't exhonerate or condone the homophobic bigotry of the Catholic League et al.)

    I am very upset and shocked by this whole incident TBH. Christians in power have far too much sway over public opinion via political BS

  • John Sitaras says:

    I find it interesting that your diatribe is indicative of people who simply are intolerant of what others hold to be sacred.

    For example, Jesus taught us to love our enemies, so it stands to reason that you can blaspheme Him in word, art or actions without serious repercussions. Happens every day.

    I would invite these so called 'artists' to feel inspired about creating their 'art' by using Muhammad as their subject matter. They won't because they are gutless, only choosing the easy way out by using Jesus to further their agenda.

    Frankly, if you are that talented of an artist, you should be able to create a thought provoking example of your talent in other forms. Or, take the example of Michaelangelo and showcase your talent in a way that brings glory to your talent and the God who gave it to you.

    I am not a fan of censorship, but patently offensive images of Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, etc. are inconsiderate of the beliefs of others. What is the gain in that?

    The Smithsonian has been censoring anything that disagrees with evolution. A perversion of true science.

    The media censors truthful negatives about homosexuals and blacks. Examples of negative behavior of these and a few other sacred cows seldom happen or are heavily censored.

    I have gay and black friends, they do smart and stupid things like the rest of us. Why should they be demonized or glorified any more or less then the rest of us.

    Like it or not, this country was founded by Christians who loved their God enough to pack their bags and face a variety of ways to die in a new land. Thank them and show a little respect for what they accomplished by faith and work.

    Or leave your cell phone and credit card behind and prove you have as much guts as they did by moving to the rainforests of Borneo, the French Congo or the Amazon River basin. Start a society that conflicts with the beliefs of the natives and see what you are REALLY made of. Then come back and criticize them.

    • jeremy says:

      Hi John. Thanks for commenting. I don't post here very often anymore, so your comment got caught in the mod filter.

      I find it interesting that your diatribe is indicative of people who simply are intolerant of what others hold to be sacred.

      What you call intolerance I call skepticism. Do you really want me to tolerate your beliefs? Do you want to be a part of a society where people who don't share your values cease to challenge you, cease to push you to rethink and reevaluate your beliefs for the sake of your own comfort? Tolerance in that sense sounds awfully paternal, doesn't it, like something done in a nanny-state? In Catholic school I was taught that faith was a journey, a process, a balancing act, something that would be continually challenged by the "outside world," and that by fighting that battle, I would find myself closer to God, finding my faith strengthened by the challenge.

      I would invite these so called 'artists' to feel inspired about creating their 'art' by using Muhammad as their subject matter. They won't because they are gutless, only choosing the easy way out by using Jesus to further their agenda.

      Artists like Wojnarowicz didn't live in an oppressive Muslim culture; he lived in a Christian one. But I agree that liberals have their own pet religions to protect (i.e. anything that isn't Christian), that most artists are liberal nowadays and they're unwilling to challenge this particular form of tolerance (or fear) because it suits them. However, I have friends from the Middle East that are challenging Islam through art, film and writing and quite literally putting their lives in danger doing it.

      I am not a fan of censorship, but patently offensive images of Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, etc. are inconsiderate of the beliefs of others. What is the gain in that?

      So you're not a "fan" of censorship except when it suits you. The freedom to criticize ideas without limit is a founding principle of this country, essential to living in a free society. The first amendment is there to protect unpopular opinions like Wojnarowicz's.

      The Smithsonian has been censoring anything that disagrees with evolution. A perversion of true science.

      There are honest people, apolitically doing science around the world, John. There is no evidence running contrary to evolution. You're not going to believe me, and that's okay. Believe what you want. Be as knowledgeable or as ignorant as you wish to be. It's quite literally your right as a citizen.

      Politically, we don't disagree as deeply as you may think. I agree that the Dems have just as many sacred cows as the Repubs. You know perfectly well why gays and blacks and Muslims are demonized by the right and glorified by the left: they need something that makes each "side" distinct from the other, to organize animosities, divide and conquer. I believe that the left's relativism is actually a greater threat to reason, to the West, to enlightenment values than the narrow-minded bigotry of neo-conservatives.

      Consistency is the problem. Your argument is preferential. You want protection from criticism for the things that you value and you want it removed from the things that you don't.