The Washington Post reported yesterday that officials at the National Portrait Gallery have pulled a piece of video art showing Christ with ants crawling on him. The Gallery did this after complaints from the Catholic League, whose president called the piece "hate speech," and from incoming House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, whose office called it a waste of taxpayer money.
The video, part of a show on sexual differences in American portraiture, is by the late artist David Wojnarowicz. The museum's director Martin Sullivan said, "This decision wasn't caving in." That's nonsense. Of course it was.
The Post's Style section also ran a commentary about the Gallery's action. Blake Gopnik wrote, "for 11 seconds of (Wojnarowicz') meandering stream-of-consciousness work...a crucifix appears with ants crawling on it. It seems such an inconsequential part of the total video that neither I nor anyone I've spoken to who saw the work remembered it at all." Way to go, Gallery.
It seems pretty obvious that, as Gopnik's commentary was headlined, "Museums shouldn't bow to censorship of any kind." The Gallery did and we are the worse for it.
One of the most dreadful things I ever saw was Auschwitz, the old Nazi concentration camp, itself a sort of museum now. There's a building there--not huge, about the size of a US Army barracks, which is piled full of shoes--all shapes, all sizes, just piled there--mute talismans of so many killed there.
I stared and stared at the shoes and thought about the nature of evil. I'm very glad the building is there.
Gopnik says that David Wojnarowicz' hope was to "speak to the suffering of his dead friend." Museums should dare to speak to suffering be it through Wojnarowicz' video or Auschwitz' shoes.