The Smithsonian Needs To Take A Stand

by Paddy Johnson on December 10, 2010 · 21 comments Opinion

Fra Filippo Lippi Madonna and Child, c. 1440 Samuel H. Kress Collection

It doesn’t take too much teasing to figure out that a lot of the arguments being made against The Smithsonian’s exhibition “Hide/Seek”, and the Smithsonian itself, don’t stand up. Two weeks ago the right launched an attack on a show that up until then had received almost no attention, specifically targeting the video, “Fire in My Belly” by  David Wojnarowicz. The work features a christ statue with ants crawling over it. Amongst the louder complaints, The Catholic League issued a statement calling for the reduction of funds to The Smithsonian Institute as a whole for hosting an exhibition they claim is filled with anti-christian sentiments. Now this is ridiculous for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that 90 percent of Western art is dominated by Christian themes. Let’s a take a survey of some of the Christian art the Smithsonian makes available to the public.

Albrecht Dürer, "Adam and Eve", 1504 Gift of R. Horace Gallatin

Albrecht Durer’s “Adam and Eve”, widely regarded as one of the great masterpieces of Western Art.

Jusepe de Ribera, "The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew", 1634 Gift of the 50th Anniversary Gift Committee

An apostle’s last moments before he is flayed alive. This powerful work arguably holds more implicit violence than that of Wojnarowicz, but I doubt there are many conservatives who would take issue with the image.

Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, "The Adoration of the Magi", c. 1440/1460 Samuel H. Kress Collection

A richly colored tondo, featuring the virgin Mary and the baby Jesus.

That these images were not acknowledged as an important American treasure in the Catholic League’s letter, iterates the reality that most of the people lodging these complaints have never been to the museum. Given this, it’s hard not to see the timing of these complaints as a part of a larger political effort that will start moving more aggressively once the Republicans take over the house in January.

There is no question about what needs to be done. The Smithsonian needs to take the financial risk and re-install Fire in “My Belly”. It’s possible the Institute will lose funding in doing so — righteousness on its own does not lead to triumph  — but these are not fights from which we can afford to walk away. If we believe that art is transformative, moving and transfixing, then we have to dedicate venues for its display. Wojnarowicz knew this, dedicating his life to art making and gay activism. For the Smithsonian to capitulate to demands Wojnarowicz himself would have contested is nothing less than an insult to his legacy.

Related: Christopher Knight.

  • Sam

    Indeed, the piece should be re-installed.
    I feel an issue being overlooked amongst this whole debate is the reading of the subject matter at hand: ants crawling over a crucified Christ. While Jeff Field of the Catholic League feels the piece is “designed to offend Christians,” and “demonizing,” (he also thinks art is supposed to be beautiful), Wojnarowicz is actually engaging in a complex vocabulary of symbols that reflect his upbringing in the Roman Catholic Church where he was taught that Jesus took on the sufferings of all people in the world.

    As Holland Cotter points out in a brilliant tour de force breakdown of Wojnarowicz’s work: “He felt, with reason, mortally embattled, and the video is filled with symbols of vulnerability under attack: beggars, slaughtered animals, displaced bodies, and the crucified Jesus. In Wojnarowicz’s nature symbolism — and this is confirmed in other works — ants were symbols of a human life mechanically driven by its own needs, heedless of anything else. Here they blindly swarm over an emblem of suffering and self-sacrifice.”

    Cotter finishes by pointing out the sick irony here: “It’s an interesting thing about passion, how coming from ostensibly opposite beliefs and directions, it can sometimes end up meeting in the same place.”

    Full article: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/09/critics-notebook-david-wojnarowiczs-a-fire-in-my-belly/

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  • Hhalle

    I think this whole incident has been fascinating because what the SI did—capitulate on the narrow issue of religious iconography—it did to forestall the shutdown of the entire show because of its LGBT theme. In fact, Eric Cantor called for doing exactly that, so this whole episode could be construed as a political deal with John Boehner.

    It’s easy to assume that GOP will bring out the Culture War cudgel again, particularly as 2012 approaches, because in the past, it’s proven to be an effective tool for rallying their base, and for convincing poorer and less educated segments of the white population to vote against their economic interests. Is it still, though? Sure, what happen with Wojnarowicz was unconscionable; however, the exhibit hasn’t been taken down—for now anyway—and that may be the more salient point. It reminds me a little of the whole battle over DADT in the Senate; the votes are there to repeal it, but the final trigger has yet to be pulled. It will be interesting to see if DADT will ultimately be repealed, and to consider that possibility within the context of the Hide/Seek hoo-hah as it’s played out so far.

    Still, for what’s it’s worth, I think the aforementioned “deal” may have been prudent if not terribly courageous. Calling for the Smithsonian to risk their funding isn’t realistic. They’re not one museum, after all, but a chain of them, plus an enormous collection of scientific, historical and artistic treasures, all maintained for the public good, in part by using tax dollars. Did you really want to take the chance of scattering those into private hands over one artist’s work? Because that is precisely the ball of wax that’s being risked.

    Even so, that worst case scenario remains a possibility, regardless of whether the Smithsonian shows controversial work or not. That’s because it is consistent with the GOP’s anti-government philosophy, and the result of concentrating the nation’s wealth into an ever-shrinking slice of American society.

  • Tex

    I think the blunt of right-wingers would not attack art so much if there were more exhibits involving contemporary artists who explore Christian themes and conservative values. What you have to remember is that these exhibits are funded by the public. Tax payers pay for this yet the views of many tax payers are not represented by public funded venues displaying contemporary art. Not every artist is liberal yet one would think that all artists are after viewing 99% of the public funded exhibits that occur each year.

    The museum does offer Christian inspired artwork as you make clear. However, the fact remains, as shown by your examples, that those works are several hundred years old. Where are examples of contemporary Christian inspired art? I’m not talking about campy images of Jesus either.

    • RinD

      Tex, have you ever driven around any town in the U.S. and NOT seen a church? These tax-free institutions are rife with Christ-themed works – many of them contemporary. If these institutions are not paying taxes – i.e., do not contribute to the Smithsonian, then let them be the bastion of Christ-inspired work you so demand & seek. You’ll feel comfortable in knowing they do not contribute to our national debt.

    • RinD

      Tex, have you ever driven around any town in the U.S. and NOT seen a church? These tax-free institutions are rife with Christ-themed works – many of them contemporary. If these institutions are not paying taxes – i.e., do not contribute to the Smithsonian, then let them be the bastion of Christ-inspired work you so demand & seek. You’ll feel comfortable in knowing they do not contribute to our national debt.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Tex,

      This exhibition was privately funded, so it’s not a waste of anyone’s tax dollars. The contemporary art making community tends to be agnostic, which is fine. Not all art making needs to re-enforce Christian beliefs.

      • concerned citizen

        the exhibition may be privately funded, but the public institution it is set in is provided for by tax dollars. And the smithsonian isn’t a single museum either; they risk loss of funding across a series of institutions by they way they handle controversy.

        Someone brought up to me the pointedness of targeting wojnarowicz’s work in the light of his relationship with the nea in the days before their funding was cut after questions (sadly similar to the fascist question of “degenerate art”) were put to them about the work they were supporting. I don’t buy a strategic line of attack (based on my intimate life experience within religious conservative circles) singling out wojnarowicz, but it is important to remember that the nea was virtually decimated for standing their ground back in the day. forms of resistance that, so to speak, scuttle one’s own ship are counter-productive; change is most permanent as a form of erosion and I’m deeply encouraged that the show exists in the kind of institution it’s in and that issue with it was not framed in terms of sexual degeneracy.

      • concerned citizen

        the exhibition may be privately funded, but the public institution it is set in is provided for by tax dollars. And the smithsonian isn’t a single museum either; they risk loss of funding across a series of institutions by they way they handle controversy.

        Someone brought up to me the pointedness of targeting wojnarowicz’s work in the light of his relationship with the nea in the days before their funding was cut after questions (sadly similar to the fascist question of “degenerate art”) were put to them about the work they were supporting. I don’t buy a strategic line of attack (based on my intimate life experience within religious conservative circles) singling out wojnarowicz, but it is important to remember that the nea was virtually decimated for standing their ground back in the day. forms of resistance that, so to speak, scuttle one’s own ship are counter-productive; change is most permanent as a form of erosion and I’m deeply encouraged that the show exists in the kind of institution it’s in and that issue with it was not framed in terms of sexual degeneracy.

    • Judith Braun

      I disagree that if they saw more Christian themed art they wouldn’t attack. They are not at all tolerant, they are over zealous and have a mission to rid the world of sin/sinners, as they feel directed to do by god. Period.

      Also, is there such a thing as NOT campy images of Jesus these days?….I’d guess that “believing” is very likely going to produce camp.

  • Corey

    “Fire in my Belly” is undoubtedly a contemporary view on religious themes, how could anybody say it is not a work “inspired” by Christianity?

    It’s almost like the church just came out with a sex tape.
    Thank about it.

  • concerned citizen

    discussion surrounding this issue is tiresome. everyone in this community agrees. no-one has anything new to say.

    all that I have to add is that the smithsonian is an entirely public institution (provided for by tax dollars) that is, for this very reason, much more conservative in its exhibition programming and more vulnerable than other institutions to caving in to the demands of public opinion. this said, the real story here is that an institution like this is having what I understand to be a show ENTIRELY ABOUT HOMOSEXUAL DESIRE.

    the entirety of the show is a huge, huge step (one that I am positive wojnarowicz would have appreciated) and making an issue of maintaining a single piece’s place in the show would over-shadow the importance of the show as a whole to a public that is, by FAR, not limited to us.

    I love wojnarowicz’s work and, of course, I think the religious zeal that has demanded its removal is misplaced and saddening, but us talking about this amongst ourselves as a vile defeat in the long and bitter war against censorship is pointless and somewhat small-minded.

    • Anonymous

      There’s some truth this, but I think it’s better to say something at the risk of being redundant than to not say anything at all.

  • Anonymous

    I know the call doesn’t seem realistic, but at a certain point I feel like we need to stand up and say this isn’t right. And it’s not. I really think it’s a crime for Republicans and right wing extremists to essentially say, “we’ll take the nation’s greatest public treasures away from them if art communicates ideas, ideologies or sexual preferences we don’t agree with”. It’s stealing from the American public and pointing finger elsewhere as its being done. In this case it’s any one who’s homosexual.

    I keep thinking that if people saw what was being taken from they’d care, but that might not be true. A lot of people don’t know what they have, so while they may be able to identify that something is missing, they don’t know what. This just results in a lot of anger that’s easily manipulated, which I think is what we’re seeing now in a broader sense,

  • Anonymous

    I think you bring up good points and yes there has been some progress. Still, I think there’s limited vision at work, when we can only interpret the outcomes of our current battles by those that have occurred in the past. So maybe returning the piece to the Smithsonian is taunting in a way that is not productive, but I think we need get better at standing up for what we believe in. Increasingly the word “compromise” in relation to a Republican bargain, seems to mean “bullied into submission”. The country will lose all its culture and the middle class disappear, and the right will tell us it’s because we didn’t give enough away to the rich.

  • Michael

    What is truly sad is that a single art work has the power to trouble the entire Catholic world? Obviously the Right and the Republicans will take each and ever opportunity to look as if they are saving the world from those with a ” homosexual ” agenda. ( I lost my agenda btw if someone can send me their copy to scan? LOL)
    Is the Wojnarowicz image no less damaging than the hundreds of images of destroyed churches and artifacts that we have seen in books, magazines and films. The image has meaning and rather than point a finger and shout blasphemy it might be worthwhile for the Catholic League and its minions to explore the artist’s purpose and meaning first rather than shouting fire into a crowd and running away!

  • BM

    Someone should send a letter to the Catholic League and tell them to stop raping children

  • rrod

    “William Donohue, of the so-called Catholic League, a right-wing publicity mill with no official or financial connection to the Catholic Church.

    Donohue is best known for defending Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism by declaring that “Hollywood is controlled by Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular.” A perennial critic of all news media except Fox, he has also accused The Times of anti-Catholicism because it investigated the church pedophilia scandal. Donohue maintains the church doesn’t have a “pedophilia crisis” but a “homosexual crisis.” Such is the bully that the Smithsonian surrendered to without a fight. ”
    quote from:
    Frank Rich, New York Times, Dec. 12, 2010
    editorial link below;
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/12/opinion/12rich.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=frank%20rich%20catholic%20league&st=Search

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  • Sandboxaddict

    So let me get this straight, a group finds something of a religious nature offensive because it goes against their religious beliefs in a public venue that receives a buttload of public funding and they are wrong because they are conservative?  What about the prayer mural at the RI high school that had to be taken down because one atheist student was offended?  Sounds like a double standard to me.  If you want anti-christian artwork to be displayed, then christian artwork must be allowed to be displayed as well. 

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