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Poetry and snark blogger who also has a creative side (who knew?)

Friday, December 3, 2010

What Would Jesus Censor?

I was not aware that House Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) are art critics. In addition to their political careers, it appears that these men also aspire to wield their influence within the world of public art.  This week they called for the closing of the National Portrait Gallery's GLBT themed "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" exhibit after the conservative website CNSNews alerted them to "art with strongly sexual themes."

This exhibit features 105 works of art, including pieces by Georgia O'Keefe, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns. It also featured a four-minute video by artist David Wojnarowicz, called Fire In My Belly, which was meant to symbolize the suffering of a person with AIDS, according to the artist. However, it aroused the ire of Catholic and other conservative groups for its depiction of homosexual and religious images, specifically one image of Jesus on the cross covered in ants. Due to the controversy surrounding the video, the Smithsonian museum decided to pull the work from the exhibit.

Could this decision by Secretary of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Smith, possibly have anything to do with  incoming House Speaker Boehner's spokesman stating, "Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January when the new majority in the House moves [in]"?  Martin Sullivan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery (part of the Smithsonian), defended the video as an artistic interpretation of the suffering of an AIDS victim but then backpedaled by noting that it had been taken down nonetheless. He continued to defend the decision by saying that a "distraction had been removed from an important exhibit." Neither Sullivan nor Smithsonian Director Clough had the cajones to defend the artistic merit of all the works in the exhibit when political and possible financial pressure came down from above. Despite the official statement from the NPG Director, it's obvious that the museum caved to right-wing political pressure. Shame on them!

Should Congress hold power over what is displayed in our museums? Should CNSNews? Should the President of the Catholic League, who decried the video as "hate speech"? Does this reek of censorship? If the Smithsonian judged these works of art to have enough merit to be included in the exhibit, they should stand behind them, each and every one. Removing even one piece because it was deemed offensive to someone is censorship. What is the function of art in a free society? Is it just to beautify and elevate or can art evoke thoughts or feelings in the viewer that may be uncomfortable or even negative?

I'd be willing to bet that many of those who objected to Wojnarowicz's video hadn't even watched it. It was originally a 30 minute video, which was edited to 4 minutes for the museum exhibit. I watched a slightly altered version on YouTube. The 11 seconds of the ant covered cross was hardly the most noticeable image within this video. The entire video is a nightmarish compilation of disturbing imagery, some of which is religious, some of which is sexual, and some of which, at least to me, is indecipherable. I can't say I enjoyed it. Is it offensive? Who knows? It sure ain't a date movie!


  1. What would Jesus censor? Brilliant! What is going on when even art can't go untouched by politics?

  2. I recently read an interview of Jake Gyllenhall, and he said that his father had said that an artist's job is to "disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed." Certainly the Smithsonian should stand by EVERY piece and refuse to back down.


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