Saturday, December 4, 2010

Art, Sacrilege, and Myrmidons

Ants on a crucifix I was watching John King's show on CNN the other night, and he had a segment about the recent hoo-raw concerning the National Portrait Gallery's exhibit concerning LGBT themes and artists, as well as works of art relating to AIDS.

One video seemed to draw criticism and ire from the Catholic League and some politicians. The video, "A Fire in my Belly," is a four-minute version of a longer video made by the artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992. The full exhibit, titled "Hide/Seek" contains nudity and graphic images with homoerotic themes, but what drew the most attention was one particular image in the video: ants crawling over a crucifix.

The president of the Catholic League, William Donohue, described it as "hate speech against Christians." I'm sorry to say that the curators of the museum bowed to pressure and pulled the video, although the remainder of the exhibit is still in place (with a warning that it contains mature themes).

Some politicians joined in condemning the exhibit. Both John Boehner and Eric Cantor decided to weigh in on it, wondering why taxpayers were funding such offensive images, although they apparently condemned it without actually making the trip to the Smithsonian to see it for themselves. One Congressman, Dan Lungren of California, sent a written statement to CNN in which he said that the Republicans plan to review the process by which the Smithsonian's exhibits are chosen.

The exhibit was privately funded; taxpayer money was used for the building facilities and maintenance, not the exhibit.

King interviewed Brent Bozell, the president of the Media Research Center, an organization whose goal is to "bring balance to the news media," which they believe has a liberal bias; also present was Blake Gopnik, the art critic for the Washington Post.

First of all, I would dearly love to smack that smug expression off of Bozell's face. Better yet, I'd like to grab that pen that he keeps gesturing with out of his hand and jam it into his eye socket. But I digress.

Bozell condemns not just the ant-covered crucifix, which he said was purposefully offensive to Christians, but also the entire exhibit, saying that if you like that sort of thing, you can find it in "some seedy art something somewhere." This is an exhibit that includes works from artists like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Annie Leibowitz. He seems to advocate cutting federal funding of the Smithsonian, if they are going to display exhibits such as this. When Gopnik tries to offer an alternative interpretation to the ant-covered crucifix, that it shows the suffering that Christ endured and compares it to the suffering that AIDS patients experience, Bozell brushes it off with a pshaw and a puh-eeze.

Bozell condemns the image as sacrilegious, and Gopnik counters with "Who decides what is art?" In reading some of the comments included with the CNN story, some people raised the recent Mohammed controversy. Remember that? A Dutch cartoonist received death threats for his drawings of Mohammed. Trey Parker and Matt Stone were censored by Comedy Central for their South Park episode in which they depicted Mohammed. There was a national Draw Mohammed Day in which we all made our own little drawings or pictures and posted them. There were plenty of people who ridiculed Muslims for having such a rigid and unyielding faith that they were willing to kill others for making a drawing of their prophet...and the ridicule was rightly deserved, in my opinion. However, you can bet that plenty of those doing the ridiculing are also saying that an ant-covered crucifix is wrong and sacrilegious. Some are saying that "all religions should be respected." For the vast majority, I call bullshit. What they mean is "MY religion should be respected. I don't give a fuck about yours."

Kandinsky I'm not going to get into a theological debate about this, although there are elements of it involved. I think the broader point is Gopnik's: Who decides what is art? Art speaks to people in different ways. Do you like Jackson Pollock? Wasilly Kandinsky? Andy Warhol? Edward Hopper? Maxfield Parrish? Daniel Edwards? These are some of my favorites, but they're not for everyone. Some see nothing but paint trails in a Pollock; I see energy and excitement. Some see nothing but geometric shapes and squiggles from Kandinsky; I see exuberance and chaotic color. Some see obscenity in my friend Dan's sculptures; I see a biting statement on our fascination with celebrity.

And in the case of the ant-covered crucifix (which I believe is the next Nancy Drew mystery due out soon), I don't see sacrilege; I see a poignant statement of suffering, one that was endured by the artist himself. (I suppose you can feel free to tell me that there is no suffering like that endured by Christ on the cross. I'll say that you've never seen anyone slowly dying from AIDS. At least for Christ, it was allegedly over with in six hours or so. You can also feel free to say that I'm being sacrilegious. I won't really care.) Art appreciation is subjective. Sometimes you have to look at it and let your emotions run free. Let yourself figure out what it engenders in you, what experience it gives you or reminds you of. I remember seeing a rather disturbing work in the Dayton Art Institute a few years ago (actually a fine little art museum that I enjoyed very much). I don't recall the artist, but it was a dark work that bothered me on some subconscious level. I didn't "like" it per se, but I was transfixed by it as I tried to figured out why it bothered me. I never did figure it out, but it was a neat experience.

Hopper I feel sorry for people like Bozell, who obviously is so blinded by his faith that he can't see any alternative interpretation to something like this. His world is one of black and white, crisp edges, and clean boundaries--and sensibilities that are way too easily offended. It is a lot of fun to explore a little bit, to try to get beyond your initial feelings of revulsion? uneasiness? anger? Whatever it is that is triggered in you, try to figure out what it is and why. The artist was feeling a particular emotion when he or she created their work; take the time to wonder if their state of mind matches yours. Or try to see if you can figure out what response they wanted to elicit from you. It's all just expression, and one of the coolest things about our country is that we have the freedom to express ourselves. To paraphrase something I've read elsewhere in the past, you are not guaranteed the right to not be offended.

As for the Republicans own precious expressions, that of possibly cutting out federal funds to places like the National Portrait Gallery if they continue to have the audacity to stage such exhibits--horribly offensive things that the Republicans can't could anyone actually enjoy such a thing?--we need to fight this tooth and nail. The Smithsonian, housing so many national treasures, is a national treasure in itself. Would they also cut off funding to the National Archives, the museum that houses our Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights? The Republicans do not get to determine what is art.

If they did, I bet we could look forward to the Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Crap™, exhibit coming to the National Portrait Gallery soon.


  1. didn't we already have this big art controversy with the photo of jeebus in the pee-water won an award sponsored by the national endowment of the arts?

    personally, i dont see the issue. if you dont like it, don't look at it or don't go.

    maybe they should just ask jesus how he feels about it. he can post his response in a pancake or maybe on a tortilla if he has a lot to say about it.


  2. I see you are reading 'Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' I enjoyed that book. I identified in many way with Lisbeth and even more after seeing the Swedish version. Trapped in a world she can barely decipher and living by her wiles and...

    ... oh, the art controversy. Doing some more 'identifying' with words, a smart lady said this about the big to-do:

    "However, you can bet that plenty of those doing the ridiculing are also saying that an ant-covered crucifix is wrong and sacrilegious. Some are saying that "all religions should be respected." For the vast majority, I call bullshit. What they mean is "MY religion should be respected. I don't give a fuck about yours."

    And I agree with the feeling express completely. It is the same all over the country, only when something lands in their wheelhouse or affects their interests do folks take any action. All the more intense when someone makes an ideal more solid and gives them something to demonize.

    The whole problem is with the 'man behind the curtain'... people want to imagine him as one thing (unless you are Muslim, in which case, you don't imagine him at all) when that image often contradicts what I interpret from scripture.

    I think Jesus would see the work for what it is... his sharing the suffering of an AIDS patient and all those afflicted. That is suppposedly the purpose of his sacrifice, isn't it?

  3. Wellm first of all if anyone was nailed to a cross it's more than likely there would be ants crawling all over him. They probably live in the wood. Next, the matter of something being sacrilegious. Are we to have a panel of religious professionals peering into every museum and movie theatre deciding for us what is or isn't. It might get very confusing, for what is sacrilegious to a Christian may not be to a Jew and vice versa. Then there's the questiobn of what is art? Aestheticians have been discussing that one for centuries and haven't come up with an answer that applies to everything. It's obvious anyway that the "gentleman" on the left has no idea what art is even though he thinks he does.

    The wrong headedness of this whole issue is sickening. It reminds me of many things such s the uproar over the Muslim mosque in lower Manhattan and the uproar over the film "The Last Temptation of Christ." I passed by a movie theatre in NYC that wa showing the film and came upon a demonstration against it. I stopped to talk with a few people and asked if they had seen the film or read the book. None had. I asked them then how did they know what they were demonstrating against. I also informed them that I knew a Jewish girl who had converted to Christianity as a result of reading the book, which is the truth. But these outraged politicians who are threatening to take their marbles and go home have never seen the exhibit. Same old story.

    To be continued.

  4. Furthermore, let's face it, the issue is not about Christ or sacreligion, it's about homosexuality. Conservatives and particularly Christian Conservatives, can't bear the fact that there is homosexuality in the world. That hypocrisy is also sickening. They will cite scripture to justify their prejudice but ignore it about other things. If the "fool" on the left is so stunned and shocked at depictions in art of homosexuality he should come to New York during Gay Pride Day and witness the love. The self righteous conservatives should grow up. The sad fact is that since they came to power we will no doubt see a lot more of this type of idiocy.

    And what's wrongwith two brothers kissing each other? My brothr and I used to kiss and he was ten years older than I. You, on the left side there, what do you call that, child abuse?


  5. I always feel that some people tend to focus on irrelevant issues when it comes to alleged debates about religion (I agree with DB that the real issue in this instance is homosexuality.) It doesn't matter whether or not the ants on the cross work is sacrilegious; it's a work of art and the exhibit is in a museum, not a church and no one is forced to view it. Let ministers tell their flock how sacrilegious the exhibit is and let them condemn it and stay away, but don't censor all the people who don't find it offensive from viewing the work.

    I think that this is where so many people make religion an issue when it shouldn't be. I have no problem with anyone declaring that he or she finds some work of art to be anti-Christian. I believe in freedom of expression. However, they don't get to tell me that I should find it offensive and that I can't see it!

    Beth, I think that you have accurately placed the real argument in context, "Who gets to decide what is art?" I've seen lots of "art" that I didn't like for a variety of reasons but somebody liked it. No person or group of persons should dictate what others may view or create.

    I have a slightly different take on the Mohammed issue--to depict or not to depict! It's a diplomatic and political issue more than a religious one, at least it is under our current shaky relationship with all things Muslim.

    I also think that the prohibition against any depiction of Muhammad is clear unlike trying to figure out before hand what art may or may not be offensive to Christians. Don't get me wrong, I don't think that there is any rational logic behind the prohibitions against physical representations of Muhammad, I just think that it is at least a simple and very specific belief and I'm willing to refrain from intentionally insulting Islam by choosing to specifically violate it for the purpose of insulting Muslims. The draw Muhammad day event wasn't about art it was about giving the finger to Muslims about their beliefs. Still pemisible under freedom of expression but not really a necessity. I put it on the same level as burning the Quran.

    However, sacrilege in reference to Christianity is sort of hard to call in advance. I seriously doubt that the artist set out to create an exhibit that would offend or insult Christians, and if Christians are insulted, then they should stay away from the exhibit.

    One last thing, is the Right too ignorant to recognize hypocrisy even when it slaps them in the nose? Republicans profess that they are against big government; the mantra of the Tea Party is "We don't want the government telling us what to do!" However, they have no problems with the idea of the government censoring the work of artists and pulling a power play by cutting funding for the arts. It appears as long as the government sticks to telling us what we may view or whom we cannot marry, the Right is just fine with massive government interference.

  6. I was trying to put my thoughts into words but then I read Sheria's comment and saw that she said everything I was thinking. So thank you, Sheria, for putting it so concisely.

  7. I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that Ethel was my favoeirt Myrmidon!

  8. That image of the crucifix didn't exactly look appealing to me, either, but I don't agree with condemning it or using it as a basis for reviewing how the Smithsonian selects its exhibits (especially given that you mentioned the exhibit was privately funded). Where were these voices when folks were walking around with posters of Obama dressed as a witch doctor or Hitler, by the way? This whole flap seems like just so much 'low hanging fruit' for politicians who want to appeal to their base ... a much easier rallying cry than "bonuses for billionaires." Who knows, if it works, maybe they'll support a new "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for the art community (Michaelangelo: shut yer yap; Leonardo: put a sock in it; ...)!

  9. Art is meant to invoke a reaction, and this one certainly has. To bad that the Smithsonian caved to the pressure.

  10. Hey Beth, for me, fine art in the modern age is supposed to be about reflection and introspection, expansion of thought beyond the accepted, and social and political expression, three things conservatives often loath. Without that trinity attached, art simply becomes decoration.

    Something can be made with care and detail, be composed of fine or rare materials, and have sensibilities of what human beings find beautiful, but without the soul of that trinity it really isn't fine art. As an example, a hand made quilt is beautiful and requires great skill, but a panel quilt from the AIDS Memorial Project is closer to being fine art, even though both are basically the same thing.

    Most people who defame fine art or take offense to it don't want people to connect or debate or form new ideas. They feel it threatens their very existence, hence the fierce reaction. If it wasn't a perceived threat, the reaction would be minimal.

  11. It would get no attention whatsoever if these religious nuts just ignored it. But NO, Now many more people will see it thanks to their "outrage".


I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you?