Interpreting Art

A bit of controversy developing in DC after the National Portrait Gallery pulled a video from an exhibit exploring sexuality, in part due to Crucifix pressure from Bill Donohue's Catholic League.

The exhibit, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, is one of the more controversial exhibits for the Portrait Gallery, and incoming Speaker of the US House of Representatives John Boehner, himself Catholic, joined Donohue in criticizing the exhibit. This particular video, available on YouTube here (somewhat graphic), is called "Fire in the Belly." Created by the late David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS related causes in 1992, is intended to highlight the suffering experienced by many living with and dying of the disease in the 1980s and 90s. There is much Christian imagery in the piece, and the scene causing much of the outrage involves ants crawling over a crucifix.

There are quite a few interpretations of the video. The Catholic League calls it, "hate speech" (Donohue's full statement is here). Commentary in the Washington Post says that the video is, "Wojnarowicz's reading of his piece puts it smack in the middle of the great tradition of using images of Christ to speak about the suffering of all mankind. There is a long, respectable history of showing hideously grisly images of Jesus - 17th-century sculptures in the National Gallery's recent show of Spanish sacred art could not have been more gory or distressing - and Wojnarowicz's video is nothing more than a relatively tepid reworking of that imagery, in modern terms."

A news article in the Post suggests that the GOP controlled House may revisit federal funding of museums that sponsor controversial exhibits due to this, a discussion that both Boehner and Donohue welcome. If you watch the video, what do you see? Hate speech or suffering? Blatant disrespect of the faith or moving identification was the scourged and marginalized savior? A masterpiece or a series of disconnected images?

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7 years ago
Imagine the outrage in the arts community if a Catholic artist created a video with a message that rampant sexual promiscuity among gay men and illegal drug use causing AIDS drained Catholic resources from other worthy causes.  Images of starving women and children juxtaposed with scantily clothed men dancing in gay pride parades, participating in gay orgies, and drug users smiling in ecstasy after shooting up. 

Would the art supporters here be so understanding there as they are when the Church is being accused and attacked?
Marie Rehbein
7 years ago
Michael,

What someone creates to symbolize his or her thinking on some subject does not offend me because I recognize that it is a personal expression just like the video you are describing is a personal expression coming from you.  I would think that whether your video comes to public attention or not would be based on many qualities besides the subject matter and perspective you take on it.
Kang Dole
7 years ago
"The decision wasn't caving in [...] We don't want to shy away from anything that is controversial, but we want to focus on the museum's and this show's strengths."

Thus Martin Sullivan, the director of the Gallery, as quoted in the Post. He goes on to say that the idea behind removing the piece was to prevent distraction from the exhibit as a whole, but of course the catch is that the censorship of the piece is what will now attract all attention.

And it's wild that he could deny that he caved when he clearly did just that,

The thoght of somebody like Boehner policing art makes my stomach hurt. The Smithsonian receives public funds, but these special exhibits are funded privately. I hope that some of those doners raise a stink that make Sullivan long for the utterly predictable whining of someone like Donahue.
7 years ago
To call this "art" is really too much - this is not art, it is anti-art, anti-culture made in the name of transgressing all norms and deconstructing the limits and values of religion.  Culture and the Church represent summum bonnom and these arists only wish to have or envision summum malum.

It reminds me of "piss christ" from or the madonna made with animal fesces - transgressive artisits and homosexuals desire to deconstruct and insult all that does not affirm their individual sexual whims and unlimited desires...and then they call it "art."

Here is Philip Rieff (from My life among the Death Works) on the "piss christ": 

"What third culture (i.e. modern transgressives) mean by creative is the act of de-creation.  That is why the connoisseurs tell me you cannot have modern Catholic art, but you can have piss christ.  Piss christ is an antisacramental image.  Sacrament is a fusion with the highest and the central event in the dramaturgical enactment of highest authority.  The sacrament as fusion with the highest authority is inverted to the image in piss christ as a fusion with the lowest.  The highest is identified down in an act of incredible crudity.  It amounts to an assault that lowers the Catholic identity of Galatians 2:20 to the level of excrement.  Christ is in you, and so you are piss.  The excremental assault of the Jews in the middle of the twentieth century is here repeated on Catholics. 

"The drowning of Christ in piss is part of the relentless assault by the abolitionist movements to make religious identity and religious faith repulsive, untenable."

I wonder if the author of the post would find a video of ants and other vermin superimposed on the piles of bodies of Jews in concentration camps art?  Would he ask hypothetical questions about its decency?  And of course such a thing would never be shown (rightfully so).  The same goes for Muslim religious symbols - only Christians are targeted for such sacralige by the modern "artist."
we vnornm
7 years ago

Putting aside the issue of "appropriateness", I chose today instead to mediate upon tyhree different images that can be found today on separate parts of the blog:

There is an image of a crucifix amist the ruins in Haiti in this slidehow, which is well worth watching:

http://americamagazine.org/blog/entry.cfm?blog_id=2&entry_id=3613

It was interesting, at least for me, to meditate upon the two different crucifixes, the one here in Michael's article, and the one at the end of the slide show on Haiti, and to see what thoughts emerged.

More vivd and distrubing than either of these images are the photos of dead children being carried out of Our Lady of Angels School on December 1, 1958. They are, truly, images of Christ crucified:

http://olafire.com/Gallery.asp?Cat=Victims

Perhaps you will have thoughts if you look at all of these photos as a series.

bill
Kang Dole
7 years ago
I've watched this video a few times, and I actually just don't see where the offense is supposed to be coming from. I know that it's the ants-that's what people are citing, anyhow-it's just that I can't understand why ants on a crucifix are intrisically offensive. Is this art really offensive, or does it just provide a convenient platform for bellyaching and politicking?
7 years ago
''I can't understand why ants on a crucifix are intrisically offensive''


When you see ants crawling over something, you know it is dirty and that people thought it not worth while to take care of it. It is a repulsive image and my guess is that the artist's objective was to denigrate.  I find the attempts to defend it more interesting than the art itself which was meant to be offensive.  What would lead people on a Catholic site to defend this?


Is this the same Michael O'Loughlin who just a short time ago longed for the old days.  Since Michael was confirmed in 2001, maybe his old days are different from the old days of others.  Is he pining away for a Jesus or a crucifix in urine''
Kang Dole
7 years ago
That's just silly. No, really, that's a big stretch.  Are people that squeemish about ants?  I mean, they're ants, not sewer rats or silverfish. Would a picture of Jesus feeding pigeons in a park rile up people even more? After all, who doesn't think a pigeon is dirtier than ants?

My guess is that the real body of Jesus suffered greater idignities than the touch of a few ants.

7 years ago
I'm dumbfounded by those here who defend this drivel; that don't see the difference between using an image of the crucified Christ as a metaphor for all suffering and using an image of a desecrated crucifed Christ as an attack on Christianity.

Don't you get it?  Christianity, Catholicism in particular, is the cause of HIV and AIDS in America and all suffering by homosexuals.  If the Chruch had only accepted homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle and praised condoms, there would be no suffering, only love.

I think the resentment of the Church stems from the fact that the Church was right all along.  Sexual promiscuity, homosexual acts, and use of condoms as a means for enjoying such acts for self-gratification are not good in the eyes of God.  What would be deemed to be the wrath of God in an earlier time is now instead viewed as the Church's fault, an unfortunate occurrence because the Church is so close minded.  And the staff of America finds a way to defend this perspective.  That fact is more disturbing than the video.   
Marie Rehbein
7 years ago
I side with the artist's right to produce the work of art he or she is inspired to produce.  If it is something I find offensive, I react by wondering why or whether the artist meant to offend.  Am I considered the enemy?  Is it presumed that I see whatever the issue is the same way?  Is it a cry for help?  Does the artist have no taste and think that looks nice?

What I don't think is that I am entitled to be pleased by everything other people do, particularly not by what is produced from their innermost being.  Perhaps it would be different if they came onto my property and made their offensive artistic statement, but they have the same rights that I do to make artistic statements generally.  If these statements are considered significant in some way and a curator somewhere chooses to incorporated them into a coherent exhibit, this is not the same as violating my space.

I think a video of ants and other vermin superimposed on the piles of bodies of Jews in concentration camps could be an artistic statement, but it would be redundant.  Perhaps, such pictures superimposed upon images from an ant farm would say more.  The images from the concentration camps are not sacred to anyone in the way that the images of Jesus are sacred to us.

It is sad that Donohue and Boehner are so sensitive that they need to have everything their way.  However, I know how they feel about the crucifix, as I was surprised to hear myself say to a group of parents that it would be wrong to hang a crucifix outdoors, and they agreed with me.  I don't think it was simply that the thing was not made to withstand weather, but rather that we cannot help but want to protect the Jesus on it from the cold, dirt, bird poop, etc.  However, I can see that even allowing this can make a statement of faith that God, even as Jesus in his dying moment, is stronger than whatever we do to Him. 
Drew Courtney
7 years ago
I wonder what Christ would see if he saw this video.  Would he see himself attacked or would he see someone suffering? Would he sympathize with the censors or with the artist?

I admit that I think it would be the latter in both cases, but I don't really know.  Maybe it's all of the above.

In any case, what does that say about what we should see?  Maybe nothing.

I'm inclined to give the artist the benefit of the doubt.
7 years ago
I find it amusing for those using the artistic license defense for this exhibit.  The real question is why a crucifix.  What significance has the Catholic Church or Jesus to do with this particular person's suffering.  Neither caused it.  Why not the picture of some African monkeys or photos of Hollywood's elite or prominent liberals which have more to do with the cause of the disease or the life style that leads to it.  I would think those would be more appropriate images to have ants crawling all over it.  But no.


Why the crucifix?  I think we all know the answer. 
Bill Mazzella
7 years ago
Should we not keep in mind that the subject always seems to be about sex when Donohue and the bishops get into the act. Timothy Dolan, the new bishop's president, seems to be trying to get out of this sexual preoccupation of the hierarchy when he stressed recently the need for nuclear disarmament. The fact that this is not popular with the sexual crusaders should tell us something.

At any rate the point I want to make is that we need to get more into the beatitudes of Jesus than 24/7 about sex which is truly revolting. To that end we should consider that Jesus made a big deal about anger and not forgiving ones neighbor. The Catholic League and its offshoots emit anger 24/7. The reminder has to speed out that this is not the gospel of Jesus.
Kang Dole
7 years ago
No we don't. Look, you're seeing what you want to see, which is kind of inevitable since the material is disjointed and nonlinear enough that it is open to a full range of interpretations. The thing is, a few seconds of footage simply does not provide you with what you need to feel so entited to your outrage.  And, frankly, ants do not equal piss. The stylistic traditions that have been inscribed through teaching and time are not the only routes available for representing Jesus. How can it be surprising that one who was rejected and suffering chose someone like Jesus as a source of imagery?

7 years ago
(apologize if this appears a duplicate post)

According to Wikipedia, the musician performing for the video, Diamanda Galas, apparently became known by her live recording of the album, "Plague Mass,"(which includes the piece used in the video) in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NY.  Wiki continues:

"With it, Galás attacked the Roman Catholic Church (and society in general) for its indifference to AIDS..."

While I realize that this is not conclusive of the video artist's intended message and its use of ants on a crucifix, I don't think his choice of this music and musician was accidental. 

In light of this, it seems to me that the ants on the crucifix are not so much intended as a desecration as they are representing the artist's perceived inactivity of the Church: so inactive that the ants can crawl over it like a piece of food on the sidewalk.
7 years ago
''Should we not keep in mind that the subject always seems to be about sex when Donohue and the bishops get into the act.'' 


A few comments:


First, is this true?  They are trying to get rid of denigrating images about Jesus and the Church.  Maybe it is others who are seeing this?


If you follow the posts on this site, there seems to a preoccupation with sex here.  Just see what gets the most posts.  Condoms, homo-sexuality, AIDS, abortion (sex without consequences) and you will see there is a preoccupation with sex.   The Catholic Church is about salvation.  I do not see any preoccupation with salvation here, just the opposite.  There is a preoccupation with making a heaven on earth on this blog.  That is the main knock on the Jesuits, they are more concerned with this world then the next.


I had an ex Catholic tell me at dinner one night when discussing religion, why is there a concern about sex and religion when they are unrelated?  I replied that two of the ten commandments were about sex and that the main objections to religion and Catholicism in particular have to do with issues that concern sex.



And it is the artist of the exhibit that decided to bring in a specific religion to his agony about a consequence of sex when the religion was not the cause of his condition.  Why not point that out?  What has religion has to do with his condition and Catholicism in particular?
Marie Rehbein
7 years ago
Michael Brooks might have the right interpretation of the artist's intent.  Maybe it is not a totally unfair criticism, and maybe it is an effective way of making the point using an artistic medium given that it was picked up on so quickly and completely.  It may be that Catholic League is responding as the artist intended and the rest of us (minus Michael Brooks) are just slow when it comes to interpreting art.
7 years ago
''If you watch the video, what do you see? Hate speech or suffering? Blatant disrespect of the faith or moving identification was the scourged and marginalized savior? A masterpiece or a series of disconnected images?''


When I watched the video, I did not see suffering, identification with the scourged or a masterpiece.  I saw a grotesque sequence of images that seemed to have no coherence intermixed with sexual images.  I understand some have tried to give coherence to the sequence including the artists.  And once this coherence is given, is it any more poignant?  What drove the artists to create such a sequence?  Certainly not any form of faith, hope or love I see.


Now compare that to the video that Father Martin posted about World AIDS day and see which is more likely to motivate you or provide emotion for the victims of AIDS

http://www.americamagazine.org/blog/entry.cfm?blog_id=2&entry_id=3603 


Why pick now to air this video?  Is it relevant at all to what is happening today?

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