Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Whose Art is it Anyway?

Much has already been written about the (Hide/Seek) brouhaha over David Wojnarowicz’s video “Fire in My Belly” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Last week the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts’ director, John Killacky wrote a wonderful commentary on the issue—giving some much needed context to his position that the Smithsonian was profoundly wrong to remove the video from the exhibit.

Wojnarowicz died in 1992 of AIDS, but his work, much as it did in the late 1980s, apparently continues to drive some people over the edge. Why?

Outside of church, people invoke the Lord, God, Jesus, or any number of Saints for a variety of reasons; usually to celebrate something good that has just happened to them (“Before I thank the Academy for this award, I’d like to first thank God…”) or because something bad has just happened, or is in the process of happening. For people who face death, a crucifix serves as a talisman of something spiritual and redemptive; a tangible reminder that Christ suffered for our sins and that the journey to the next place will be made bearable by His suffering and His presence.

So why is it somehow more acceptable for an NFL wide-receiver to catch a pass in the end-zone, point to the sky, and drop to one knee for a short prayer, than for an artist, suffering from AIDS, to use a video-image of a crucifix covered in ants to express, in part, the pain and torture of his condition? Aren’t these two sides of the same coin? If it’s okay to include God in your victory dance, shouldn’t it also be okay to include God in your rants against pain and suffering?

From where I sit, the Church (Catholic or otherwise) has pretty broad shoulders and casts a pretty large net. Millions of the faithful will not suffer as a result of Wojnarowicz’s work being exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery (despite the fact that some of the video is for mature audiences). In fact, Wojnarowicz’s video will probably bring more people to a more spiritual place than will the US House Speaker-elect’s efforts to remove it from view.

So what is really going on here?

Somehow, 25 years ago, it became politically acceptable for some politicians to impose their own intolerant moral and religious views on all Americans, and this is the latest chapter in their war on people who “aren’t like them.”

I guess we are supposed to ignore the fact that people who aren’t conservative Christians also pay taxes, represent us in Congress, fight for us every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, and (for those of us with large families or large circles of friends) are loved and respected by us without question. In the eyes of a few powerful political leaders, you can’t be a “non-conservative-Christian,” create works of art using religious icons, AND have your work exhibited in a publicly-funded institution all at the same time. Why? Because you’re DIFFERENT.

Sadly, the Director of the Smithsonian removed the work without even inviting the critics on Capitol Hill to come and view it for themselves. Had he done so, an important educational dialogue might have opened.

The real question is, how tolerant can we be, or should we be, of someone else’s art if that person’s sexual orientation and/or religious views give offense? I was raised with the understanding that true Christians should be tolerant and forgiving, and that before judging others I should walk in their shoes. Aren’t elected politicians elected to represent ALL the voters, even the ones who are different?

In my view, the Government is supposed to do more than feed and clothe people, ensure their safety, and provide shelter. It should also enable a clear and accurate record of our collective journey through life to be documented and preserved. AIDS, while less in the news than it was 20 years ago, is still poignantly with us. Gay artists have always been with us, and always will be, as will their art. Religions will always compete for followers, especially in this country where freedom from religious persecution is guaranteed by our Constitution.

The Smithsonian is, if nothing else, the MOST appropriate place to present the record of one artist’s journey with AIDS. Like it or not, we all pay taxes, and we’re all going to die—some of us very slowly and painfully. Bottom line, David Wojnarowicz’s journey is our journey, his art is our art, even if Speaker-elect Boehner doesn’t seem to know it yet.

For more on this subject, click here.

1 comment:

Joy said...

This is a great post. I haven't seen the video so I don't feel that I can comment on the image you mentioned, but I do like what you've asked about the difference between a football player giving God a high five (sort of speak) and also using religious symbology such as a crucifix, to represent pain or anger that the artist is feeling.

Did the artist talk about what the image represented to him (pain, fear, anger, etc.) or was it left to the viewer to decide? So much of interpretation, in my opinion, is what can cause differences of opinion. Because we all come to view a piece of art with various filters in place, different backgrounds, different values and mindsets--we all see different things.

Regardless, I think this post is very interesting and I appreciate you writing about this topic. I for one would love to see more communication between Christians and artists.