In 1992, the American artist David Wojnarowicz died after a battle with AIDS, at the age of 37. He left behind him a host of challenging, provocative works of art...and a legacy of challenging and provoking the Religious Right. Toward the end of his life, Wojnarowicz's art drew the outrage of the American Family Association, which used images of his work on pro-censorship pamphlets, and who he in turn sued for copyright infringement. Now, 18 years after his death, Wojnarowicz is again a target of the Religious Right's newly empowered censorship efforts.
Wojnarowicz's four-minute video piece, "A Fire in My Belly," which evokes the suffering of AIDS victims using Latin American themes inspired by the artist's time in Mexico, was included in a groundbreaking exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery examining gay and lesbian identity in American art. The Right is, unsurprisingly, unhappy with the existence of the exhibit and found in Wojnarowicz's video a convenient lightning rod: 11seconds depicting ants crawling over a statue of Christ on the cross.
Hours after right-wing groups began to voice their opposition to the 11 second fragment of the video, the director of the Portrait Gallery announced that the piece would be removed. The reason? "Some of the accounts of this got out so virally and so vehemently," said Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan, "that people were leaping to a conclusion that we were intentionally trying to provoke Christians or spoil the Christmas season."
The path from David Wojnarowicz's struggle with AIDS to the director of a Smithsonian museum announcing, ironically on World AIDS Day, that Wojnarowicz's artwork might spoil someone's Christmas, says a lot about American politics at the start of a new era of right-wing power. A Religious Right extremist generated controversy in the far-right base, found an eager echo chamber in the Capitol Hill GOP, and won an astoundingly easy instant victory over a skittish federal agency.
At the center of this Christmas politics story is Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, one of the cadre of powerful groups in the United States that devote themselves to bringing church and state closer together. We've been tracking Donohue's extremism for years. Since joining the Catholic League in 1993, at the height of the last wave of censorship wars, Donohue has railed against the secular world, against non-Christians, and against Christians who he deems to be not Christian enough. He ferociously attacked critics of the Catholic Church in the midst of child molestation scandals, repeatedly questioning whether victims were actually molested. He has called progressive Catholics "termites." He has accused "cultural facists" of "neutering Christmas." And he, like many of his fellow crusaders, reserves a special hatred for gay people, referring to the "gay deathstyle" and equating gay people with pedophiles. Just this July, he penned a column for the Washington Post's On Faith website titled, "Catholic Church's issue is homosexuality, not pedophilia."
Donohue has lurked on the far-right edges of the political debate for years. But with the wave of truly far-right extremists elected to the House and a GOP leadership eager to appease them, he and others like him have found fast friends and new traction for their extremism.
The far-right news service CNS News first broke the "ant crucifix" story Monday in an epic 3,700 word article that examined many of the supposedly objectionable works in the Portrait Gallery's exhibit. Donohue immediately jumped on it, telling Fox News that Wojnarowicz's work is "hate speech" and launching a media campaign that quickly took off. He soon had the support of incoming House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who called for the entire exhibit to be taken down, and threatened "tough scrutiny" of Smithsonian funding if the exhibit wasn't pulled. The Smithsonian resisted calls to take down the entire exhibit, but by Tuesday afternoon, it had agreed to pull Wojnarowicz's video. And this despite the report from the Portrait Gallery's director that the museum had not received a single complaint about the piece from a person who had actually visited the exhibit.
It should come as little surprise that this whole media whirlwind has included minimal discussion of the work of art in question. The context of its inspiration as a work of art depicting suffering from AIDS and not as anti-Christian ammunition in the War on Christmas is not being discussed in the media frenzy. Indeed, that has become beside the point. Bill Donohue has appointed himself the nation's chief art critic and religious scholar, and the soon-to-be installed Republican House leadership our prime art censor. Donohue said the art hurt his feelings; the newly-empowered Boehner and Cantor threatened the Smithsonian's funding; the Smithsonian apologized and gave in.
Donohue has spent his career insisting that the only true Christians are those that fit themselves into a narrow far-right box, and that the only true Americans are Christians. He now has a powerful political movement to amplify his voice, and political leadership that will lend heft to his threats. This debate is not about 11 seconds of an artist's video. It's about who gets to speak for the American people.
The Portrait Gallery's director said that Wajmorowicz's artwork might "spoil the Christmas season" for some Americans. I am sorry if that is the case. I, for one, am an American who would rather spend Christmas in a free society surrounded by diverse points of view, knowing that my government respects me enough to let me decide who I will listen to, who I will ignore, what art I will like, and what will offend me. Art censorship is an easy show for the GOP to put on for its far-right base. But it's not one that we, as a free society, can afford to accept.
Follow Michael B. Keegan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/peoplefor