Gay art and censorship

The Catholic League is wrong about “A Fire in My Belly,” the work of video art by David Wojnarowicz that was removed from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Rather than mocking Christianity, as the Catholic League charged — thus leading to the piece’s removal — “A Fire in My Belly” is an attempt to equate the suffering of an AIDS victim to the suffering of Christ. On top of that, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” — the exhibit that “A Fire in My Belly” is a part of — is a very powerful exhibit which I encourage people to see.

“A Fire in My Belly” shows a crucifix being covered by ants. To me — a conservative Catholic and supporter of Bill Donahue and the Catholic League — it made perfect sense. Christ took on our sins, which meant enduring the terrible humiliation that can come with suffering. This doesn’t mean one needs to resort to blasphemy or scatology, as (yawn) avant-garde artists have done in the past; but it also means that showing Christ with sores, or bruises, or even bugs on him can be an expression of faith and solidarity. If David Wojnarowicz was identifying a friend’s suffering with the suffering of Christ, he was just doing what Christians are called to do. Of course, liberals love to identify their suffering with Christ while ignoring the Lord’s call to conversion, of rejecting sin and becoming a new man. And gay art can particularly suffer from watch-me-suffer kitsch and bombast — “Angels in America,” etc.

Walking through “Hide/Seek,” I was struck over and over by the same thought: why was this art, some of which is brilliant, ghettoized in a gay exhibit? Romaine Brooks’ “Self-Portrait,” “Unfinished Painting” by Keith Haring, even some of the less ridiculous works by Andy Warhol, all belong in art galleries as works of art, period. Why make it a gay thing? Alas, for the answer to that we must turn once again to the contagion of political correctness. Part of the point of “Hide/Seek” is to valorize homosexuals, to grant them a special virtue as victims and thereby give their art a kind of talismanic power that makes the artist and viewer virtuous. I like Keith Haring and feel bad about AIDS (and I hate Sarah Palin), therefore I am good.

But this thinking is patronizing. It’s cheap virtue as opposed to the real thing. It also does a disservice to the artists. By turning viewing into a political act, it makes the viewer reluctant to do what he would in any other gallery: say that a work is vulgar, trashy, or just plain sucks. It also makes art snobs criticize art for political reasons. Blake Gopnik, the art critic for the Washington Post, condemned the censorship of “A Fire in My Belly,” but in doing so he blasted Norman Rockwell, who also has an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. Gopnik “can’t stand the view of America” that Rockwell represents. Notice how the ideologue Gopnik has nothing to say about Rockwell’s technique; for him, it’s all about politics. For the record, I’m a conservative and I find Rockwell’s art contrived and corny. The “Hide/Seek stuff was much more compelling.

By far the most offensive and worthless work in “Hide/Seek” is a gigantic photograph, taking up an entire gallery wall, of the corpse of a man who had died of AIDS. It is repellent and without artistic merit, and I’m not going to mention the artist’s name because I don’t know it and don’t care. The dead man is on a bed and his lover has surrounded him “with some of his favorite things.” It’s AIDS bathos meets the Crypt Keeper. Worse, it’s a denial of the sting, the terrible sadness, of death.

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  • basterdpeople

    while i’m glad to see the author of this article coming to the exhibit with an open mind, i have to jump in on what otherwise would be a one-way discussion of this issue for this site. The author’s pondering, “why make it a gay thing?” was particularly interesting to me. Indeed, why view works of art in the context in which the artist was making the work? Who cares about their disgusting, perverted private lives, as long as they are not using my tax payer money? (BTW the smithsonian has not used federal money to acquire these works or pay the artists, many of whom are dead, but i suppose it doesn’t matter that the federal money goes only to museum workers’ salaries and various institutional costs, they still display the queer works) why do we have to know that Grant Wood was homo, when ‘American Gothic’ paints such a nice picture of how we’d like to see the world? Why is all NEW art out to make *gasp* a POLITICAL statement?

    You cannot separate the political from the cultural anymore, nor the political from the personal.

    to say that a work of art is “ghettoized” when we honestly acknowledge the lifestyles of the artist, their intentions, artistic and political, and the roles they have come to fill in (specifically queer) history and culture; is truly offensive, not just to gay people, but to any valid interpretation and experience of ANY work of art. Maybe it makes you more comfortable to ignore the parts of the picture you disagree with, but it makes your view of the art, and thus, the world, less complete.

    so much taboo and tasteless art is successful at its aims in stirring up controversy because you guys are just so easy to offend! let artists do their job, and if the message isn’t for you, don’t try and silence them. everyone has a right to be heard. you have the choice of whether to view the full picture, edit out the choice bits that can be sanitized to fit your world view as the author has done, or just choose to ignore what you’d rather not ever encounter.

    i don’t actually think people are offended by the christian imagery in Wojnarowicz’s film. its the 1/2 second of gay male penis. in fact, the film isn’t all that interesting if you watch it from a contemporary standpoint. its interest is already properly historic, and if you don’t connect it with the context and message it is trying to convey, its a very dull 4min 11sec excerpt to strain through.

    watch “fire in my belly” here and decide for yourself:

  • jlcd

    I don’t agree with censorship myself, but to pay for it with tax dollars?

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  • Newly Minted

    I see what you mean. My response is that the phenomenon of homosexuality should be treated by Christians in a way that it hasn’t been to date.

    I lived in this world for thirty years plus before coming back to the Church. At heart it is a world that is dedicated to sin. At heart it is a total rejection of God and of life. It is a pagan god.

    But isn’t that what all life is outside of the Church? Isn’t all sin a form of idolatry? Homosexuality is just all of the sins of the secular world in condensed form. This is why so many secular straight people are so much in favor of homosexuality. They see that their own materialistic lifestyle is basically the same as the homosexual lifestyle.

    I see my fellow men and woman who have same-sex attraction as people who are caught up in something bigger than they are, and something destructive. In this aspect, homosexuals are also the ideal Christians, in that all humans are caught up in sin. This is a side to it that could be beautifully made into art, though I doubt that any secular gallery would be interested. And I doubt if any (Protestant at least) group of Christians would have any interest in art that doesn’t demonize homosexuals. The Church (the Catholic Church that is) has that tradition of compassion in her that could both produce and celebrate this.

  • rockhard

    I’m sick and tired of radical gay groups using Jesus christ as mockery in their movies panting and then calling it “art” let them use Mohammed as art for once andlets see how that goes for for them, I don’t want my tax dollars used to promote homosexulity and using ugly images ofJesus christ to promote thier life style ..

    if gays listened to Jesus christ they would never have gotten aid because they would not being having gay sex which is very dangerous to begin with..

    and Jesus would tell them to stop sinning…or you will die. sin kills not just the body but the soul.