Tis the season when zealot Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, feels the need to be relevant. In recent years he has inveighed against the nonexistent "War on Christmas" which, he said, was being conducted almost exclusively by "well-educated white people" pushing "left-wing secularism."
Now, with a familiar ring, Donohue is taking on art museums, calling for the end of all public support for the arts because its clientele are people who are "significantly better educated and affluent than the U.S. population" and who are "overwhelmingly white."
Interestingly, Donohue is a white man with a Ph.D. who says he doesn't go to museums. Nonetheless, Donohue says it's "class discrimination" to force the working class to support art museums through their tax dollars. Instead, Donohue suggests, the government should fund professional wrestling. "It's what the working class enjoy," Donohue said in an apparently sincere statement that disregards all the public money poured into the building of sports stadiums and arenas across the country.
The museum snit arose over a video in the National Portrait Gallery's current exhibition exploring sexual difference in the making of American portraiture. In an act of both cowardice and perceived self-preservation, the Smithsonian museum quickly pulled the video after Donohue complained about an image of a crucifix with ants crawling on it that flashed intermittently in a four-minute offering by the late artist David Wojnarowicz.
The Portrait Gallery's instant response was an obvious attempt to forestall a political firestorm. Who can forget the campaign launched by yahoo moralist Sen. Jesse Helms back in the 1990s to strip the National Endowment for the Arts of funding over its support for homoerotic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and artist Andres Serrano, who photographed a crucifix in urine? In the end, because of a few challenging images the agency had its federal budget cut by 40 percent.
The subtext from back then is the same as Donohue's critique now: The arts are for elitist snobs whose fulsome intellect and left-leaning cultural values are different from those of "real Americans." This pejorative narrative works especially well when controversial art is seen as religiously objectionable — whether that is the art's true meaning or not — since it offers an opportunity to further divide these two Americas by casting highly educated art curators as modern blasphemers.
Not surprisingly, the Wojnarowicz video drew an immediate denunciation from Republican John Boehner, the incoming House speaker, whose spokesman called it a misuse of tax money. The exhibit is privately funded. Boehner was probably disappointed that the video disappeared so fast and after so little political hay was made. In this religious nation, no matter how many dozens of artworks of Christian veneration the Smithsonian has on display in the National Gallery, one off-message piece is an irresistible opportunity for conservative politicians to arouse voters and accuse the art world of anti-Christian bias.
It should be noted that Wojnarowicz's explicit video titled Fire in My Belly is difficult to watch. And not just because of the ants. It depicts a man having his lips sewn shut. There's dripping blood, nakedness and flashing images of corpses. According to the Portrait Gallery's director Martin Sullivan, the artist created the video in Mexico in the 1980s and did not intend to convey sacrilege but rather the suffering caused by AIDS, the disease that eventually took Wojnarowicz's life. "If you look at Latin American art and imagery, really over time there are a lot of portrayals of Christian iconography with suffering, agony and death," Sullivan said.
Ah, but to understand that, one would have to explore the work before condemning it, and where's the fun in that?
Long ago, when Bill Moyers asked the incomparable art critic/Catholic nun Sister Wendy for her reaction to Serrano's Piss Christ, she refused to see it as blasphemous. To her it was a social caution that attempts to say "this is what we are doing to Christ."
It is this kind of intriguing conversation about art's meaning and value that Donohue and his crowd seek to squelch before it even begins. And, unfortunately, the Smithsonian let them.