"Ant Jesus" Ban Heralds New Age of Gov't. Censorship...in Time for Christmas!

First it was piss, then it was elephant dung, now it’s… ANTS!

If you thought it was 1989 all over again, with puritanical moral agendas gaining amazing ground, you just might be right.

This time, it’s not the NEA or the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It’s the hallowed Smithsonian under attack from the Catholic League and the new majority leader of the House.

Just what were those ants doing, you ask. The video, A Fire in My Belly by artist David Wojnarowicz, has these upsetting ants creepy-crawling all over a crucifix.

Merry Christmas, Rep. Eric Cantor!

While we are certain this can’t be the first time that Rep. Cantor and his constituency have encountered a metaphor, I think they’ve proven once again they do not know how to handle one.

Cantor called this newest offensive art piece (no longer on view) at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery an “outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”

Oh, boo! Christmas is about mangers and Virgin Marys, not so much the crucifix. It’s not even an actor playing Christ being devoured by ants. It’s just a crucifix, a potent symbol of suffering. Equally a symbol of rebirth.

As for the ants? Well, siafu are scary. They attack in columns of 50 million when they are hungry: the terror of villages. They can devour your whole body as you die of asphyxiation, not the poison of their bite. What else is scary? AIDS. I’m betting this was what Wojnarowicz was after: a startling metaphor that strikes the heart of those watching. The artist’s collaborator died of AIDS the same year the film was made: 1987. The artist himself succumbed to the disease in 1992 at age 37.

This metaphor tells not only the artist’s personal struggle, but the history of AIDS. Recall how it was first dismissed as a “gay” disease? So naturally the church pretended it could ignore it and could wag the finger of the Lord from the pulpit, calling such things the price of being “unclean.”

Watch the video here*, and you’ll hear a list of “that which is unclean” sung in hymn tones with drums tolling. The whole thing ends with a burning globe.

[* Fair Warning:This video contains mature content, including, but not limited to, parts of the human body that may cause some viewers to feel uncomfortable and/or ashamed of owning them. Those prone to anatomical envy are advised to proceed at the risk of their own ego. Moreover, those prone to writing complaint letters are urged to save their virtual stamp and to refrain from watching altogether.]

So that’s the offense. Is this not a topic worthy of citizens to debate? Artwork about plague and death is classic, church-sponsored and otherwise. How is A Fire in My Belly different? It may not be as pretty as a rotting corpse embracing a maiden of the buxom glory of the 14th century, but I am proud of the National Portrait Gallery for being willing to put such work on display. And I am ashamed for those behind the ban.

Congress never acts without its constituents or its lobbyists telling it what to do. Catholic League president Bill Donohue really got the waters boiling. He hasn’t actually seen the exhibition…but he took Congress and the Board of Regents to task about it.

Mr. Donohue’s main line of argument: “You wouldn’t do this to a Muslim image.”

“Well, duh, Mr. Donohue,” I’d respond, were I the artist. “Some Muslims may go in for fatwas, Mr. Donohue. But America and the Catholic Church are supposed to be different, right?” Blogger “A Conservative Mom” calls artists cowards since they don’t dare have ants crawl on Muhammad’s face too. Gauntlet thrown, Madame; someone will answer it! In fact, artists in Europe already have.

Why Such Offense at What Hardly Anyone Sees?

In an NPR story, The Catholic League’s Donohue broadens his remarks: “I don’t go to museums any more than any Americans do.”

So by this “logic”…

If no average Americans bother going to museums, there’s really no chance of contamination or offense after all. Christmas is saved! No one needed to shut off the video, close down the exhibit or pull funding.

No Christians will be offended, because only Good Ol’ Average Joe American celebrates Christmas (or Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, etc.) and wouldn’t dare bother leaving the malls, masses or family fire long enough to go to Washington, DC, to see this “degenerate” exhibit exploring gay and lesbian American artists.

He calls museum-going the “leisure of the elite” and suggests we subsidize pro wrestling. God bless America!

Do Your Research: Private Funding of Hide-and-Seek

The Smithsonian does get federal funds for the building. Funds for exhibitions all come from private sources. This exhibition, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture got dough from the likes of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Calamus Foundation and the John Burton Harter Charitable Foundation.

Is this really like “the Pentagon going out and paying $500 for a hammer?” – as alleged by Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston?

Are we actually making the citizen bankroll “the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors” – as others quote Thomas Jefferson regarding this case?

I think not. There is no natural propagation or proselytizing in art. Art asks questions of the viewer. The viewer injects meaning. That’s what we mean when we say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Art is mute. When looking at a painting, video, photograph or what have you, one assents to understand it. You look at bad art to know what good art is, after all.

The artist, when he is dead, can no longer even speak for it. However, Wojnarowicz did speak out against the homophobic positions of such as John Cardinal O’Connor, Sen. Jesse Helms and others. In fact, Wojnarowicz was no stranger to the debate about public funding of the arts, and his art in particular. He got the NEA in trouble back in the 1980s.

Dan Cameron, curator of Wojnarowicz’s retrospective at New Museum, puts it well:

Wojnarowicz’s most lasting achievement may have been to show by concrete example that the artist’s unshakeable responsibility is to his own version of the truth, even when it takes on forms and meanings that are extremely difficult to witness.

That’s where the First Amendment comes in, see. In a similar controversy in 1999, then-Mayor Giuliani froze the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s funding because a painting by Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, happened to employ elephant dung. (Let’s leave aside that dung is actually a sacred material in African/Vodun culture, and absolutely a part of the artist’s Nigerian heritage.)

Whatever his reason… Giuliani had his way, until federal judge Nina Gershon ordered him to restore it. She wrote: “There is no federal constitutional issue more grave than the effort by government officials to censor works of expression and to threaten the vitality of a major cultural institution as punishment for failing to abide by governmental demands for orthodoxy.’’

In an online poll being conducted by TBD about the video’s removal, only 12% believed the work should be removed. A whopping 84% said that the work should stay. And 4% agreed that while the removal of the art was wrong, it was good for the museum to “quickly diffuse the situation.”

That’s the real rub. In an age where deficits, spending cuts and pay freezes are very real, every arts organization knows it will be the first to be axed. What else are they but “leisure” in the minds of the voters? So arts organizations are less willing than ever to pick a fight. Even if it’s a matter of the First Amendment! Although art of late has been very little about pretty paintings, it’s also the first political organ to be silenced by lack of funds.

The easiest way to kill “degenerate” art is to starve the artists. The question becomes what happens when state representatives become curators?

While I began this essay with a healthy dose of mockery, I do it as one who was carded at 12, with my sister, age 17, to see a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe at my local art museum. We had to go back home and bring our mother on the weekend. We were both photography students and had studied drawing from live models. We had seen penis before.

I can tell you I didn’t “catch homosexual disease” from looking at these images, nor other works by fellow lesbian photographer Annie Leibovitz (also featured in Hide/Seek). My Republican/Christian-raised mom was outraged when interviewed by reporters that her children were carded in an art museum. She would fault a museum that would consider dropping controversial works rather than dealing with politicians and bad press.

Is it really propagandist to put a photo of Ellen DeGeneres squeezing her boobs next to the room that has portraits of presidents and another hung with photos of a young Elvis? Gee, I thought that’s what made America great: a multitude of voices and images that resembles not a white Nazi Germany and the destruction or silencing of art and artists. Besides, wasn’t Elvis’ pelvis a threat to preteen girls’ morals everywhere back in the day?

Maybe I’m too liberal. And yes, dear reader, we wouldn’t be having this debate if the Smithsonian were not a publicly funded institution.

However, that’s not its start. In 1829, the English scientist James Smithson left his fortune to us – the people of the United States. He longed to establish an institution “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

Like it or not, even our gay-lesbian/religious dialogue is part of American history and our cultural knowledge. We know the winners write history…but why not preserve the dialogue?

Andrew Jackson (the hallowed monetary reform president) thought America could accept this rich legacy. Many states’ rights advocates, nationalists, federalists and xenophobes weren’t so sure about it. Still, by 1846, the Act of Incorporation allowed for a lecture hall, library, chemical laboratory, natural history laboratory and art gallery. I, for one, am very glad we took it.

If arts funding gets fully privatized, who steps in? And who suffers? That’s the real debate here. Not a bunch of ants.

A 2010 NEA Arts Journalism Institute Fellow who apologizes to her Austrian friends,

Samantha Buker
for The Daily Reckoning

[Author’s note: Rumor has it that the Smithsonian may start charging $7.50 a head. If you want to get a FREE look at the exhibit Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture you have until mid-February to hit DC to see what could be the last truly ballsy portrait exhibit to be mounted in the United States!]

The Daily Reckoning