Piss Christ (1987) by Andres Serrano.
If the news of the past few weeks has felt like a re-run of the 1980s—ongoing recession, government cuts, riots in London, Tories casting aspersions on the undeserving poor, the threat of another royal wedding—then add to the list of déjà vu moments a flurry of outrage concerning art and religion in America that’s like a recapitulation of the Helms vs. NEA spats of 1989. On that occasion Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ was in the firing line, accused of being a blasphemous portrayal. This week it’s been the turn of a video installation of a short film made the same year, A Fire in My Belly, by David Wojnarowicz, a work featured in an exhibition I linked to a couple of weeks ago, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC. A Los Angeles Times piece previewing the exhibition also connected Hide/Seek and the earlier attacks by the right against the NEA, ending by saying “Times and attitudes change”. Well, not always…
A Fire in My Belly (1987) by David Wojnarowicz.
Piss Christ notoriously shows a plastic crucifix immersed in urine; A Fire in My Belly is a 30-minute film which features among its blizzard of images a crucifix besieged by marauding ants. Wojnarowicz’s work wasn’t even mentioned in the LA Times piece but this week’s furore has made it the focus of the entire show after the gallery withdrew the video following protests from the usual suspects, the Catholic League and a right-wing politician, Rep. John Boehner. The complaints are the standard bluster about blasphemy (again) and taxpayers funding “filth”. None of the complainants appear to care that Wojnarowicz’s film is a tribute made by a gay artist to his friends as they were dying from AIDS during the 1980s, a disease which also killed him in 1992, they see the work only as an offensive act. It’s too much to expect anyone reacting with such fervour to consider that the artist may have been comparing the suffering and treatment of people with Aids in that decade with Christ’s suffering on the cross, to do so would be to admit that the artist might have a point. In response to the work’s withdrawal the Transformer Gallery in Washington DC has been screening the film and organised a protest at the National Portrait Gallery. (Update: They also issued an open letter urging the reinstatement of the work.)
left: David Wojnarowicz.
None of the reports I’ve been reading seem aware that the film’s soundtrack is taken from The Divine Punishment (1986) by Diamanda Galás, the first part of her Masque of the Red Death Trilogy in which the plight of people with AIDS is examined through different texts, from Biblical scripture to Decadent poetry to blues and gospel songs. The Divine Punishment has her shouting the strictures against plague victims from Leviticus over a funereal drum-beat which makes it absolutely the right score for Wojnarowicz’s film. One of the Divine Punishment tracks is dedicated to a friend who died of AIDS; Saint of the Pit, the album which followed is dedicated to her brother who died of the same illness. I’d love to hear her opinion of the people who’ve been complaining about Wojnarowicz’s film for the past few days, she never takes any prisoners. (Update: Her response!)
Two ironies are immediately apparent following the withdrawal of the film from the exhibition: the first is that the action has spread news of Wojnarowicz’s work all over the world this week, in which case the Catholic League can congratulate themselves on increasing the viewing of the “blasphemous” film a thousandfold. The second is that the work of both Wojnarowicz and Galás in the 1980s dealt in a forthright manner with the loathing shown towards people with AIDS and the refusal of governments and media to deal honestly and openly with the disease. Among other things Wojnarowicz’s film depicts the artist having his lips sewn together. By shutting out Wojnarowicz from their exhibition the gallery and the Smithsonian Institution re-affirm the point he was making in the 1980s about the voices of the afflicted being silenced.
Detail from the Isenheim Altarpiece (1506–1515) by Matthias Grünewald.
As to the issue of blasphemy, I fail to see any. Boehner and the Catholic League seem unaware of the long tradition in western art of using Christ and saints for their symbolic value, with presentation of the crucified Christ being reworked in order to reflect the concerns of a given audience. One famous example of this is Grünewald’s extraordinary Isenheim Altarpiece, painted for a monastery where people were treated for skin diseases. Christ’s contorted figure is blighted and lacerated, while the pustule-covered creature on one of the St Anthony panels is one of the most grotesque figures in western art.
The problem, as always, is one of interpretation. Dogmatists, authoritarians, fundamentalists, can’t abide the nuance or ambiguity of art despite so much religious discourse concerning itself with questions of interpretation. Piss Christ is regarded as blasphemous not for its appearance but for what the viewer is told about the work by the title. If the same picture had been called Honey Christ without the artist revealing details of the work’s creation no one would ever have bothered with it. As it is, not all Christians found the work blasphemous, art critic Sister Wendy Beckett (a nun) didn’t:
Moyers presses on, asking whether she was offended by Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a work which, he claims, “denigrates the central figure of your faith.” Again, she begs to differ. While advancing her opinion that Serrano is “not a very gifted young man, but he’s trying to do his best,” Sister Wendy absolutely refuses to see Piss Christ as blasphemous. Instead she reads it as an admonitory work that attempts to say “this is what we are doing to Christ.”
But then Sister Wendy knows her art history. If Wojnarowicz had really wanted to act blasphemously he could have done far worse than put ants on a crucifix, but blasphemy is the first and only thing being seen when the “wrong” people dare to use Christian imagery. Mel Gibson can thrash Jesus to ribbons (and take a dig at the Jews while he’s about it) and Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, is perfectly happy. In fact Donohue took a dig at the Jews himself when defending The Passion of the Christ in a television interview, saying:
Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It’s not a secret, OK? And I’m not afraid to say it. That’s why they hate this movie. It’s about Jesus Christ, and it’s about truth. It’s about the Messiah.
Mr. Donohue could learn a thing or two about temperance. The argument against Wojnarowicz is a complaint against a gay man having the temerity to appropriate an icon from his own religious tradition and to use that icon symbolically. It’s unfortunate that a gallery attached to the Smithsonian Institution of all places couldn’t summon the courage to argue as much in favour of the work instead of capitulating to their critics. The Institution is learning now that these people are never satisfied with small victories, they always want more. A peak of philistine hysteria has been reached with another politician, Rep. Jack Kingston, demanding that the Smithsonian have its funding removed. Given the current climate we can expect to hear a lot more about taxpayers’ money funding “obscenity”. Wikipedia tells us that Bill Donohue, who also happens to be the author of Secular Sabotage: How Liberals are Destroying Religion and Culture in America, is paid $343,420 a year for insulting Jews and hounding dead artists. If it’s obscenity you require, look no further than the man’s pay packet.
Update: Hide/Seek: Too shocking for America. One of the exhibition curators speaks out against the censorship.