Video: Is Wojnarowicz's censored video really ‘anti-Christian’?

Christopher Knight at the LA Times takes up the question in a piece that resonates with this Catholic art enthusiast. As you recall, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery caved to pressure exerted by Republican politicians to pull a video work (below) by the late David Wojnarowicz because it included a short clip showing a crucifix with ants walking on it. The rightwing Catholic League -- which has a long history of blasting artists who dare address the topic of Christianity, including Nigerian-English artist Chris Ofili's portrait of the mother of Jesus which included balls of elephant dung, and Renee Cox, who depicted herself in a Last Supper photo as a nude, female, African American Jesus -- dubbed the piece "hate speech" in a characteristically snotty release.

Knight writes, in part:
...Objectively speaking, an artist bent on making an anti-Christian diatribe would not spend just 15 seconds of a 30-minute video making it. Those images instead serve another function: To rebuke the same self-righteous moralism of those who are attacking the Smithsonian now.

Ants and bugs are an age-old artistic symbol that laments the frailty of human beings and earthly existence. As Ecclesiastes puts it: Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas -- “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” Ant-covered flora, bodies and animals turn up in everything from still life paintings in the largely Protestant 17th-century Netherlands to the silent Surrealist film, “An Andalusian Dog” (1929) by the Spanish director Luis Bunuel and artist Salvador Dali, a conservative Catholic.

In the Wojnarowicz video, the vanitas theme plays out on a crucifix not as a religious slur, but as a lament for earthly failures among those who should know better at a time of epic tragedy. Small wonder that some who failed then take offense at being reminded of it now.
Knight notes that only one of the politicians and religious groups outraged by the piece have actually seen it. Thanks to the internet, we needn't rely on the opinions of allegedly anti–"nanny state" GOPers to screen content for us: P.P.O.W. gallery, which represents the artist's estate, posted the full work, which does have some content which may be challenging to some, on YouTube, but users flagged it as offensive, so it was yanked. But now the gallery has hosted it elsewhere and makes it available on its website. Transformer Gallery in Washington is also showing a seven-minute version of the work.

As with the furor over the Corcoran canceling a Robert Mapplethorpe show in 1989 -- activists ended up doing a guerrilla slideshow on the exterior wall of the Washington museum, raising the work's profile even more -- efforts to quash exposure of Wojnarowicz's work already seem to be backfiring, drawing far more attention to it than had Bill Donohue's Catholic League not squawked so loudly. (Of course, the regularity of such squawking raises questions whether fundraising for the League is a major factor.) Regardless, I suspect that true Catholics have faith strong enough to endure an 11-second clip showing ants on a crucifix -- and some will likely come away enriched by the experience.

A Fire in My Belly, David Wojarowicz, via P.P.O.W. Gallery. (Note: A shorter edited version was to be on view at the National Portrait Gallery.)

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