It’s Groundhog Day all over again. It’s Groundhog Day all over again. It’s Groundhog Day all …
A year ago, I was cabbing across Washington when my BlackBerry buzzed, carrying news that a few activist Christians had gotten the Smithsonian to censor an art video, because it included 11 seconds of ants on a crucifix. The piece had been withdrawn from a wonderful show of gay art called Hide/Seek, then at the National Portrait Gallery, and months of uproar followed.
On Thursday, the taxi was in New York, and the BlackBerry had become an iPhone, but the news was almost identical: The same video in the same show, due to start its run at the Brooklyn Museum on Nov. 18, was once again a target. Nicholas A. DiMarzio, the Catholic bishop of Brooklyn, was asking the museum to withdraw the video, titled A Fire in My Belly, from an exhibition that hadn’t even opened yet. He’d started by sending a private letter to the museum’s board, according to spokeswoman Stephanie Gutierrez, but now that the contents of that letter have leaked, he has made his demand for the video’s withdrawal the official position of the Catholic Church in Brooklyn.
DiMarzio and a handful of other Christians insist the piece is a “disrespectful” and blasphemous attack on their religion and won’t brook any other reading of it. They don’t care that David Wojnarowicz, who made the work in 1987 and died of AIDS five years later, said he chose to put Jesus in his piece because “I wanted to make a symbol that would show that he would take on the suffering of the vast amounts of addiction that I saw on the streets,” and because “I saw very little treatment available for people who had [AIDS].” The year he shot his film, Wojnarowicz had watched his colleague and lover, the fine photographer Peter Hujar, dying miserably of the disease. (A Fire in My Belly was never finished, but Hide/Seek includes a four-minute video sampled from the 8mm footage that was left when Wojnarowicz died.)
Wojnarowicz was raised Catholic, so he knew the ancient, certifiably Christian artistic tradition in which Jesus is shown taking on the worst torments, for the sake of his followers. A few crawling ants is nothing, for Jesus, compared to a whipping and a crown of thorns and being strung up on a cross. The mild-mannered footage in Fire in My Belly is nothing compared to the blood-soaked imagery that has always shown Christ’s suffering. AA Bronson, artistic director of the Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice at the venerable Union Theological Seminary in New York, is one of the most famous artists with work in Hide/Seek, and he says that “not a single one” of his religious colleagues or students voiced objections to Wojnarowicz’s symbolism, when the issue came up the first time. “They felt this image of the anguished Christ was completely in keeping with historical treatments.... They all found the image disturbing, but in a totally appropriate way.”
As Serene Jones, president of the seminary, summed it up in an email, “the cross shows us humanity’s darkest side. Christians who want a sweet, beautiful cross completely miss the point. When it comes to the cross, a pristine portrait would be the real heresy.”
But the few Catholics now raising a stink insist that none of this matters and that their reading of the piece, as a direct attack on them, overrules what anyone else might think about it. In a video statement on the Web, Bishop DiMarzio weirdly says that he admires Wojnarowicz’s identification with the suffering Christ but that he shouldn’t be allowed to express that in art, “as a public thing.” That is, the bishop feels that no one at all ought to be allowed to see the piece, because he’s decided that, at least as far as he’s concerned, it’s about “making fun or not being respectful of a sacred symbol of our faith.” DiMarzio and his supporters seem to have declared themselves the guardians of every American’s morals, and the nation’s official and only interpreters of art.
One constant refrain of the video’s critics is that no one would ever dare make such art about Islam. That makes it sound a lot like they wished they could instill the same fear of retribution that some radical Muslims have so successfully used to silence artists, cartoonists, and other critical thinkers. (In fact, there’s plenty of Muslim-themed art that comes tinged with blaspheme, despite the serious risks it involves.) Would Bishop DiMarzio prefer an America where people are so afraid of certain strands of Christian opinion that any views that cross them are taken off the table? He might also think about the risk his zero-offense policy poses to all the great old Christian art, in museums everywhere, that has aggressively anti-Jewish themes—and that Jewish art lovers have nevertheless been appreciating for years.
Jonathan Katz, co-curator of Hide/Seek and a professor at the University of Buffalo, says he doesn’t think religion is the real issue at hand. He points out that Wojnarowicz’s video has now been seen at hundreds of museums, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and New Museum, with no notable outcry. He says the real discomfort comes from the fact that, in Hide/Seek, the video comes surrounded by art by and about homosexuals. “All that is new is the new framing of it,” he says. The video’s critics “are desperate to find a kind of handhold to attack the show,” he says, because it “respectfully examines a tradition of American history that they are trying to bury.” As a gay man himself, he says he reads Catholic critics’ claims of being injured by Fire in My Belly as an attempt “to camouflage their own violence against not only our history, but also our lives.”
The tapeloop of the Hide/Seek controversy doesn’t seem set to replay perfectly. Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum, says he has no intention of removing the video, under almost any circumstances he can think of: “If at some point they tell me that they’re keeping Blake Gopnik hostage, and are going to cut off his fingers—then maybe I’d have to think about withdrawing it.” Given the city’s traditions of tolerance and diversity, not to mention the huge cultural role its gay community has played, he says Hide/Seek is an exhibition that “has New York’s name all over it.”
In Washington, the controversy over “Hide/Seek” had a peculiar effect, taking a show that was a wonderful sleeper and making it a necessary visit. The same might now happen in Brooklyn, which is great news for all the powerful works in the show that have nothing to do with religion, and that shed light on how poignant it has been to be gay in America. And, so long as Lehman stands firm, the public will even get to see “A Fire in My Belly” and decide for themselves what it means. And some Catholics can decide not look at it at all.