The Smithsonian announced on Tuesday that they would remove a piece of video art that includes images of ants climbing over a statuette of Christ. This was after pressure from legislators and the Catholic League, who said, respectively, that the piece was a misuse of taxpayer funds and “hate speech.” Representative Eric Cantor claimed that the art was “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”
The piece, “A Fire in My Belly,” is part of an exhibit on sexual difference in portraiture, and has been getting good reviews. It cost about $750,000 and was funded by a large number of individual donors as well as foundations that support gay and lesbian issues. This piece is the only one that has been pulled from the exhibit. The 4-minute video has been excerpted into its first 30 seconds on most sites, but the whole piece is available here (be warned: it’s very disturbing). The artist, David Wojnarowicz, died of AIDS in 1992.
Exhibit co-curator David Ward defended the piece, saying that it was a compelling reaction to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and early 1990s. “That it is violent, disturbing and hallucinatory precisely replicates the impact of the disease itself on people and a society that could barely comprehend its magnitude,” he said.
The musem’s director, Martin A. Sullivan, had a less satisfying response, although he stood by the exhibit as a whole. Claiming that they weren’t trying to offend anyone, he explained, “The artist was very angry about AIDS and he was using that style to create a statement about suffering. His approach was based on a lot of imagery that is very Latin American, and it can be garish and unsettling.”
After seeing the entire video piece, I’m surprised that so many sites are choosing to excerpt it, because the first 30 seconds make sense only in the context of the rest of the film. It’s certainly disturbing, but it also identifies Christ with gay men with AIDS – as well as indicting the way that Christianity has been coopted by people with homophobic interests – and emphasizes the gruesomeness of Christ’s death. Christ’s blood is associated with pollution in the same way that gay men’s blood was “polluted” in a powerful and angry piece of art.
Is it disturbing? Absolutely. Should it be banned? Absolutely not. The artwork raises important questions about the way that we talk about AIDS, and reminds us that the stigmas attached to AIDS have only lessened slightly. The fact that legislators are forcing curators to censor this work shows that they don’t spend a lot of time thinking either about art or Christianity, and that they’re more interested in political rhetoric than thinking about the marginalized and oppressed in American society.
Sign the petition to tell Republicans not to censor American art.
Photo from Flickr.