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Is the censored David Wojnarowicz video really ‘anti-Christian’?

December 2, 2010 |  3:56 pm

G. Wayne Clough Anne Cusack Los Angeles Times Earlier this week Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough ordered the removal of a short video-excerpt from a critically acclaimed exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Bowing to a classic case of “manufactured outrage” from a few Republican politicians and conservative pressure groups –- all but one of whom, interestingly enough, gave no indication that they had actually seen the exhibition they condemned -- Clough’s unfortunate decision gave tacit credence to their claim that the censored art is “anti-Christian.”

Is it?

The short answer is no. The longer answer is that it does rail against those who profess Christian compassion but fail to enact it.

The 13-minute video, “A Fire in My Belly” (1987) by David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) is in part a terrifying shriek against the shocking social indifference to the AIDS crisis then engulfing the United States. (You can watch the show's short excerpt of the video here, but I would caution that it contains some brutal and sexually explicit imagery.) Writing of President Reagan in the Washington Post in late 1985, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Beverly Hills, noted: "It is surprising that the president could remain silent as 6,000 Americans died, that he could fail to acknowledge the epidemic's existence. Perhaps his staff felt he had to, since many of his New Right supporters have raised money by campaigning against homosexuals."

Ambrosius Bosschaert Flowers on a Ledge President Reagan’s first remarks on the disease came on May 31, 1987, after more than 20,000 Americans had died. Congress did not enact the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act until three years later.

The four-minute video excerpt at the National Portrait Gallery, part of the large exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” includes four brief shots of ants crawling over a small crucifix, which has what appears to be actual blood flowing from the wound in Christ’s side. These images, which last less than 15 seconds, are what some claim to be anti-Christian.

Objectively speaking, an artist bent on making an anti-Christian diatribe would not spend just 15 seconds of a 13-minute video making it. Those images instead serve another function: To rebuke the same self-righteous moralism of those who are attacking the Smithsonian now.

Ants and bugs are an age-old artistic symbol that laments the frailty of human beings and earthly existence. As Ecclesiastes puts it: Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas  -- “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” Ant-covered flora, bodies and animals turn up in everything from still life paintings in the largely Protestant 17th-century Netherlands to the silent Surrealist film, “An Andalusian Dog” (1929) by the Spanish director Luis Bunuel and artist Salvador Dali, a conservative Catholic.

In the Wojnarowicz video, the vanitas theme plays out on a crucifix not as a religious slur, but as a lament for earthly failures among those who should know better at a time of epic tragedy. Small wonder that some who failed then take offense at being reminded of it now.

-- Christopher Knight


Photos: G. Wayne Clough; Credit: Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times; Ambrosius Bosschaert, "Flowers on a Ledge," 1619-1620; Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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Comments () | Archives (19)

The question you ask is frankly ridiculous. Does anyone believe that a short 15 second scene in a video of ants crawling on a Quoran would have been installed at the Smithsonian???? The artist's application for the showing would have been crumpled up in a ball and thrown in the trash can. For some reason, the cultural elite think that mocking Christian symbols is fair game. Remember the prior "art" exhibit of a cricifix in urine? Try doing that to a Quoran and the President would have the head of the Smithsonian on the phone within 30 seconds.

..or try the same scene with a Menorah (something that not even the most rabid anti sionist groups have dared to try), and someone would call the President and remind him who gave him his job faster than he could call the artist

The religious groups that pressured the Smithsonian are participating in censorship. It was an art exhibit. If you don't like the art, then don't go to the exhibit. They didn't even bother to watch the video before they cast judgement. That is just ridiculous. It's like censoring a book without reading it.

michael sloan...if they would have censored it because of any religion it would be stupid. There is nothing in the constitution that protects religion from being mocked (even though I believe in this case that is not the case, it is hypocritical christians not christianity itself).

The left is only too happy to self censor when it relates to Islam. Why the hypocrisy? Anyway, if you want to mock religions, go ahead. Just don't do it with taxpayer dollars.

The first amendment provides for free speech but also prohibits govt from prohibiting the free exercise of religion.In 1990 the Supreme Court ruled the govt has to be neutral on religion. While not a government agency, it is under the authority of the federal govt and not a public not-for-profit corporation. It is unconstitutional for the Smithsonian Institute to sponsor anything critical of any religion.

And that, Mr. Knight, is your opinion ... or should we say interpretation, as in the 'rail against those that profess Christian compassion, but fail to enact it."

I love how you liberal, 'arty' types love to quote the Old Testament ... why don't you ever use the texts about "smote the Hittites?"

Oh, and for your personal theological edification, 'Christians,' operate under the New Covenant, not the Old.

So, much for your own bespoke 'vanitas.'

Thank you for bringing a reasoned perspective to this issue.

The facts are, the piece in question, and the exhibit it was a part of, received exactly zero tax dollars. Smithsonian exhibitions like this one are not funded by federal contributions.

Spokepersons for John Boehner and Eric Cantor made highly irresponsible statements regarding a piece of art they had no actual knowledge of, and in effect, bullied and blackmailed the Smithsonian into having the piece removed.

It is a very sad statement that one of the worlds most venerable cultural institutions can be crippled by a few uninformed politicians.

point is: in the name of doctrine/dogma religious fundamentalism and intolerance HAS cost so many lives. somebody SHOULD do an anti-christian fundamentalist art piece!

The argument about the Koran, etc. is just a straw man (look up the term "straw man argument" if you don't know what that means.) This is not about some imaginary piece of art or what would have happened to it. This is about a real piece of art that was really censored.

I think the piece actually has a VERY Christian message because it equates Christ's suffering with the suffering of AIDS patients--that's probably what disturbs the Christian fundamentalists the most! Heaven forbid that gay people deserve Jesus' compassion and love. Also there are a lot of Mexican Day of the Dead references which for centuries have emphasized the gorier aspects of the crucifixion. If we allow this kind of censoring we are no better than the Taliban.

This is an old Republican trick that they resort to time and time again. They know that they can easily stir up and rally their base by taking artworks out of context and labeling them as scandalous, and by so doing the dialogue becomes so cheapened that it's virtually impossible to defend genuine artistic "meaning" from such attacks. There's always some artwork around that they can exploit, so the political moment is theirs for the choosing. It has nothing to do with the meaning of the artwork, and everything to do with politics. It is the height of cynicism.

come on DF Tweedie...

its true protestants/christians live under a new covenant --- new testament but there are plenty of them still walking around quoting old testament for whatever they find convienent to augment their lives with. Mr. Knight is just a making a poetic point here. Not to get literal. You fundies like to pick and choose what part of the testament applies to whatever you want people to see your part of the illusion and then scream at anyone else who does the same but you don't agree with it. Get a clue fool.

Took the words right out of my mouth Christopher Knight! "Small wonder that some who failed then take offense at being reminded of it now." Nailed it.

Equally disturbing as the accusations coming from those who attack Wojnarowicz's work, are the apologists coming from the left that want to neuter the palpable sense of rage that issues forth from Fire in My Belly. Is it any wonder that the shot in question, of ants crawling across a crucifix, is interspersed with images of Wojnarowicz helplessly trying to sew a cut loaf of bread back together, or more disturbingly, his own mouth shut?

A better translation of the text from Ecclesiastes is 'futility, futility, all is futility,' which seems quite appropriate considering the number of deaths concerned and lack of public or political interest in preventing them for a long time.

Thank you for explaining, in a historically grounded and lucid way, the need to understand context and how to interpret objects rather than just having a knee-jerk and uninformed reaction to things one might not instantly be able to understand.

Mr. Knight, you also make an incredibly important argument for a broadly-based humanistic education. I'd like to see more art history professors (and others!) explain how studying the art of the past (like conventions of still life, here) are relevant to the modern world.

The points about the Koran or Menorah are just plain wrong - a quick look through the Smithsonian's collections would turn up dozens of works of art that mock or belittle Judaism and Islam. Hieronymus Bosch's Mocking of Christ, one of the greatest treasures of the National Gallery, is deeply anti-Semitic. The NGA's exhibition of Bosch's painting does not represent an endorsement of his ideas, any more than the NPG's showing of Fire in My Belly represents an endorsement of Wojnarowicz's ideas. When museums exhibit something, they aren't espousing its ideology. They are presenting it for consideration and discussion. This is something that most people seem to miss, and why the question of whether or not Fire in My Belly is anti-Christian is somewhat beside the point.

So true!!! The rabid right would have us all living in caves and crucifying everyone we don't understand (theirs is the same lynch-mob mentality that got christ on the cross in the first place).

Art almost always has subtle subtext, and only the philistines among us can only see the "soundbytes" in art (and politics) and draw their (always inaccurate) conclusions. This is all part of the insistent anti-intellectual fundamentalist movement that harkens back to the garden of eden stories that also deny science. "Knowledge" is dangerous and must be punished, ignorance is bliss. What kind of god would want that? And why would anyone "worship" such a god?

Jesus taught caring and kindness, ESPECIALLY to the outcast, and these savages conveniently ignore that because it's too hard to control people when they are informed and unafraid.

Michael Sloan and others who consider the clip "anti-Christian" might reconsider if they were at all familiar with catholic religious imagery from the Middle Ages especially during periods of plague where Christ on the cross was depicted with sores and blood in graphic and disturbing detail. The idea is not only vanitas, but that Christ assumes the suffering of all - even the most desperate, dispossessed, lost, and forgotten souls like victims of AIDS in the 80s - here symbolized by ants. A little imagination and reflection on the work might lead to less hyperventilation on the part of the indignant viewer.


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