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The Ants That Roared

Locating a crucifix in controversial-art history

Robin Cembalest
January 19, 2011
Still from David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in my Belly.(Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York and The Fales Library and Special Collections/New York University)
Still from David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in my Belly.(Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York and The Fales Library and Special Collections/New York University)

Rep. Eric Cantor, the highest-ranking Jewish congressman in history, cares a lot about keeping Christmas safe for Christians. That’s why he expressed outrage late last November when he learned about “Hide/Seek.” The gay-themed show, which had opened at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., a month earlier, included a now-famous image of ants crawling over a crucifix—an 11-second scene in a four-minute excerpt of A Fire in My Belly, David Wojnarowicz’s surrealistic rant and lament on the suffering of AIDS patients. Urged on by Catholic League watchdog William Donohue, Cantor raised his voice in chorus with Speaker of the House John Boehner, chanting culture-war catchwords like “arrogance” and “decency” and spooking Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough into quickly ordering the video removed—a bit too hastily, many thought, given that the story originated at a conservative Website launched by L. Brent Bozell III.

Since then, colleagues have weighed in with various forms of protest, boycott, and dissent. Dozens of arts groups—including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the proud new owner of the work—have shown the piece in solidarity and apparently without incident. The press-shy Clough has begun to step forward to justify his decision and propose moving forward. His first public appearance is tomorrow, when he takes the stage to talk about the incident at a (previously scheduled) Town Hall Meeting in Los Angeles.

Given the tone of the debate so far, it could be a challenge. Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, for example, denounced the artwork’s “in-your-face perversion paid for by tax dollars.” At public forums such as the Washington JCC, meanwhile, the exhibit’s organizers lashed out at museums for passing on the exhibition in the first place. At the New York Public Library, co-curator Jonathan Katz offered his own culture-war catchphrase, describing the Catholic League as the “American Taliban.” Donohue responded by printing Katz’s personal email address in a press release, provoking, Katz told me, numerous homophobic and anti-Semitic messages that landed in his inbox.

Though the Smithsonian said that Clough hadn’t commented because he had been traveling for the holidays, his silence over the last six weeks has arts advocates wondering how he would hold up if the culture wars got going again. “It’s understandable that one level of the leadership was concerned about being potentially de-funded,” says First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams. “But it’s certainly far from reflecting any profile in courage or even willingness to try to resist.” Abrams helped the Brooklyn Museum sue the city on First Amendment grounds during a 1999 censorship controversy that’s been much cited recently, when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to evict it over another allegedly blasphemous work, Chris Ofili’s dung-bedecked Madonna (also a Catholic League target). A judge ruled in the museum’s favor.

Fewer people remember that a few months later, as the Whitney Biennial neared, another controversy erupted. News emerged of a piece by German-born conceptual artist Hans Haacke called Sanitation, an installation linking Giuliani and other conservatives to Hitler through quotes, motifs, and sounds like marching jackboots. Giuliani, part of the Whitney family, and the Anti-Defamation League raised their voices to complain that the piece trivialized the Holocaust. Some wanted it out of the show. But then-director Maxwell Anderson resisted, and Sanitation stayed. As these cases show, debates over federal funding inevitably reflect larger debates in our society, about who owns moral rights to images as common as the crucifix and as universal as the sound of military boots in unison.

As for A Fire in My Belly, in the annals of censored art it is not particularly provocative. The piece has more in common with Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s classic Surrealist film L’age d’or than with the formally rigorous and sexually graphic Robert Mapplethorpe photos that inspired the Corcoran Gallery to pull the photographer’s show in an earlier round of the culture wars. Indeed, as the Smithsonian has pointed out, the imagery follows a venerable artistic tradition of crucifixions representing human suffering. (These, too, have been the subject of debate over who can or cannot show them, as London’s Ben Uri gallery discovered last year.) But then again, the news that Fire in My Belly is not very shocking is the least shocking part of the story.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor ofARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.