Smithsonian should have kept "ant-covered Jesus"

The National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., recently opened a new exhibition called "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," featuring the work of many homosexual artists. It is billed as "the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual differences in the making of modern American portraiture."

Not surprisingly, conservative groups are in an uproar. Aside from being generally miffed at the idea that gay people are Americans too, they have focused on a few elements of the exhibition that they deem offensive, the worst being an "ant-covered Jesus." CNS News, which laughably purports to be all balanced and unbiased, ran this headline:

"Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus, Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts"

This language implies that a) the Smithsonian funds this exhibit, which it does not - its privately funded, b) the exhibit is Christmas-themed, which it is not, and c) it prominently features a depiction of Jesus covered in ants, which it sort of does and sort of does not.

The Jesus in question is from a particular shot in a video installation titled “A Fire in My Belly," by artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992. It shows ants crawling over a crucifix, among many other images shot in Mexico that the artist intended to show the pain, suffering and isolation of living with (and dying of) AIDS in the eighties.

John Boehner, Speaker of the House elect, warned the Smithsonian to take it down or face severe budget cuts, and Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, called the exhibit "hate speech" and alleged that the museum would never allow the same treatment of Muhammad.

The museum, sadly, gave in to the demands of overzealous conservatives who think they speak for all of America and removed the video, on the eve of World AIDS Day, no less. The director of the National Portrait Gallery, Martin Sullivan, issued this statement:

"I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious. In fact, the artist’s intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. It was not the museum’s intention to offend. We are removing the video today."
There are so many reasons why this is atrocious, I don't even know where to begin.

First of all, the argument many are giving that taxpayers should get to decide what goes in the Smithsonian is laughable. Museum directors and curators are trained experts. It is their job to select works of art to display. You can like them or not. You can even be offended and write blog posts about them. But you've been made to think about them, at the very least, and that's the point of a museum. The idea that some kind of majority rule should determine what hangs in our national museums is like arguing that any taxpaying citizen should be allowed to practice medicine at a state-funded hospital. You know who would grace the walls of the Smithsonian if a majority of Americans got to choose? Thomas Kincade. Sorry, no.

Secondly, the fact that something is offensive to some does not mean that it should be taken away and hidden. The point of a museum is to foster discussion. No one is even considering the fact that the artist used the image to convey his belief that at the time, Christians were abandoning the example set for them by Jesus Christ and acting out of hatred instead of compassion toward AIDS victims.

Thirdly, the nonsensical point that Muslims never get picked on and that we would never allow it is just...bizarre. Ask any American Muslim what it feels like to turn on the news and see headlines about "Burn a Quran Day" and protests over new mosque construction with people shouting that there's no room for Islam in their city. Last time I checked, no one was protesting any Christian churches being built or trying to prevent nuns from wearing religious garb.

It's not surprising that some Christians find the image offensive. I personally believe that there is nothing wrong with pushing some boundaries to provoke thought and discussion. Everyone has a right to their feelings, however, and people can be offended and even protest. This is America, after all.

For the same reasons, the exhibition should have stayed in its original form, Jesus, ants and all. It's art. It's intentionally provocative. You don't have to like it. But this is America, where we don't censor art.

Boehner forgets that we are not, in fact, a Christian nation. We are a secular nation. Many people saw the exhibit, which has been going strong since the end of October, and not a peep was heard in protest, at least publicly. It wasn't until this became a right-wing hot-button issue that people noticed and got darn tootin' mad. Republicans are hijacking the real issue to once again attack the Big Bad Government's Out-of-Control Spending Spree Oh By the Way Obama is a Terrorist Agenda.

In this country, people are allowed to be critical of religion. They are even allowed to be disrespectful of religion. In the case of this video, the artist was trying to make his audience see a larger point about religion and so-called religious people in the historical moment.

The whole debacle calls to mind the reaction to a 1999 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum that included Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in urine. While Mayor Giuliani demanded its removal and the closing of the Brooklyn Museum (because obviously its better to deprive an entire outer borough, not to mention the world, of access to a top-notch cultural institution), others saw it as beautiful, rather than offensive.

I heard this (completely anecdotal and unverifiable story that we'll have to take as a parable if nothing else) story from a professor: a Catholic priest stood up during a discussion of the work and said he didn't see what all the fuss was about. He argued that it demonstrated how the love and power of Jesus Christ is so great it can overcome even the most base and lowly aspects of humanity.

Maybe that story is an urban legend, but the point still rings true. Art is meant to be interpreted, and you never know how it might affect people. The Smithsonian gave in to cowardice and political pressure instead of upholding the American values of freedom of expression. I'll say a prayer for them.

Oh, and here's the video that thousands of people who would not otherwise have cared will now watch thanks to this controversy:


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