Ant-Covered Crucifix Roils Washington Censor Brigade: Commentary

Here we go again.

Once more there have been angry requests for a work of art to be withdrawn from an exhibition. This time the kerfuffle is about an 11-second section of a video on show at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The work, “A Fire in My Belly,” by the late David Wojnarowicz includes, briefly, sequences of ants crawling over a crucifix.

This was denounced by Bill Donohue, the president of the U.S. Catholic League, as “hate speech” and attacked by various politicians. It was withdrawn from an exhibition, a move described by the museum director Martin Sullivan, implausibly, as not “caving in.” (In a protest reaction, Transformer, a Washington arts group, began showing the video in its storefront project space.) So far, so familiar: This controversy recalls others from years gone by.

The brouhaha over Chris Ofili’s painting “The Holy Virgin Mary” when it was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 had almost exactly the same ingredients: religious imagery, avant- garde art, outraged believers, politicians. The point at issue there was that Ofili’s painting, like many of his works, rests on dried and varnished balls of elephant dung.

Actually, the Ofili scandal got more heated than this one, eventually resulting in then New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani threatening to withhold the museum’s funding, and protesters smearing paint over the picture and hurling horse manure at the walls of the gallery. Otherwise, there are many points of similarity. For example, you’d need to go out of your way to be outraged by either of these works. Indeed, it would probably require prior briefing and a special trip.

Camouflaged Dung

Unless you already know that Ofili’s pictures rest on elephant dung, you’d scarcely guess. It looks like some sort of wooden support. Similarly, I suspect that an exhibition uninvitingly titled “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” (in which the Wojnarowicz video figured) wasn’t going to attract the shockably devout in crowds.

We’ve grown used to this tedious kind of fuss. Take a step back and it raises an interesting question: Why do people get so angry about images? The immediate answer might seem obvious -- when they violate that person’s sense of how the world should be. The danger areas are predictable: sex, politics and religion.

In some times and places, you could get into a lot more trouble for such a transgression than mere vilification. In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it was a serious offense to deface the currency. The BBC reporter John Simpson met a man who had been dipped in a bath of acid for writing a telephone number on a bank note bearing the president’s face.

Really Naked

Sexual images will stir up a rumpus too, of course. The most celebrated row in art history, just about, broke out when Manet’s “Olympia” was shown at the Paris Salon of 1865. Its crime was not to depict a naked woman -- the Paris Salon was crammed with sub-pornographic nudes -- but to do so in a novel manner which made it seem uncomfortably real.

People weren’t just rude about “Olympia,” though there was plenty of vituperation. If guards hadn’t been posted it would probably have been torn to pieces by visitors to the exhibition. Such rage, and all just over a painting! The more you think about it, the stranger it is.

The sophisticates of the art world can feel it too. David Hockney relates that he met a curator who announced he hated Renoir (presumably not because of sexiness, but for being chocolate-boxy). Hockney was shocked. “If you hate poor Renoir, who only painted some pictures,” he said, “what are you going to say about Hitler?”

“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” runs through Feb. 13, 2011, at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. Information: http://www.npg.si.edu/.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Martin Gayford in London at martin.gayford@googlemail.com or Martingayford on http://twitter.com.home.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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