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."
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.
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 comprehend...how 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.