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Frank Rich had a scathing column in yesterday’s New York Times about the Smithsonian’s decision, prompted by conservative Catholic and right-wing political outrage, to censor artist David Wojnarowicz’s video, “A Fire In My Belly.”
When his mentor and former lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, fell ill with AIDS in 1987, Wojnarowicz created a video titled “A Fire in My Belly” to express both his grief and his fury. As in Haring’s altarpiece, Christ figures in Wojnarowicz’s response to the plague — albeit in a cryptic, 11-second cameo. A crucifix is besieged by ants that evoke frantic souls scurrying in panic as a seemingly impassive God looked on.
Hujar died in 1987, and Wojnarowicz would die at age 37, also of AIDS, in 1992. This is now ancient, half-forgotten history. When a four-minute excerpt from “A Fire in My Belly” was included in an exhibit that opened six weeks ago at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, it received no attention. That’s hardly a surprise, given the entirety of this very large show — a survey of same-sex themes in American portraiture titled “Hide/Seek.”
Like many of its antecedents, the war over Wojnarowicz is a completely manufactured piece of theater. What triggered the abrupt uproar was an incendiary Nov. 29 post on a conservative Web site. The post was immediately and opportunistically seized upon by William Donohue, of the so-called Catholic League, a right-wing publicity mill with no official or financial connection to the Catholic Church.
Donohue is best known for defending Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism by declaring that “Hollywood is controlled by Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular.” A perennial critic of all news media except Fox, he has also accused The Times of anti-Catholicism because it investigated the church pedophilia scandal. Donohue maintains the church doesn’t have a “pedophilia crisis” but a “homosexual crisis.” Such is the bully that the Smithsonian surrendered to without a fight.
Donohue’s tactic was to label the 11-second ants-and-crucifix sequence as “anti-Christian” hate speech. “The irony,” wrote the Washington Post art critic, Blake Gopnik, is that the video is merely a tepid variation on the centuries-old tradition of artists using images of Christ, many of them “hideously grisly,” to speak of mankind’s suffering. Those images are staples of all museums — even in Washington, where gory 17th-century sculptures of Christ were featured in a recent show of Spanish sacred art at the National Gallery.
But of course Donohue was just using his “religious” objections as a perfunctory cover for the homophobia actually driving his complaint.
You can watch the video itself here. I found it disturbing, but not offensive — at least, no more than you would expect from art inspired by incredible pain and suffering. Then again, I’m pretty cynical about faith-based and politically-approved censorship of art. (Anyone else flashing back to NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani vs. the Virgin Mary stained with elephant feces?)
Here are some more faith-related links to the Smithsonian story:
- Of ants and arks (Episcopal Cafe)
- My Take: Didn’t Jesus die for gays, too? (Stephen Prothero for CNN Belief Blog)
- Wojnarowicz’s ant-covered Jesus: Blasphemy or religious art? (Religion Dispatches)
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.