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