Jesus, Ants, Art, and Republican Abuse of Power

The Republicans haven’t even taken over the House of Representatives yet, and they are already emulating Islamic extremists—and I’m not exaggerating.

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery is currently showing an exhibition called “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” In addition to homoerotic photographs and some disturbingly powerful imagery, the exhibit features an art video featuring  ants crawling over the late artist David Wojnarowicz posing as Jesus on a crucifix–a metaphor, according to Gallery officials, for the AIDS epidemic.

But soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner isn’t interested in metaphors, art, or artistic freedom either. He’s interested in the Christian sensibilities of a large chunk of Republican social conservatives, who found a video that virtually none of them had seen so offensive that it justified censorship. Boehner considered it his responsibility to make sure that even broad-minded, adventurous, modern art lovers couldn’t see the work, even if they wanted to.

“Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January when the new majority in the House moves to end the job-killing spree in Washington,” Boehner said in a statement of pure extortion. In other words, the Smithsonian was being threatened with budget cuts if it didn’t censor its art exhibit to remove any offense, real or imagined, to  Christians.  Naturally, the film was yanked.

The difference between Islamic bullies demanding that Comedy Central censor South Park for imagined insults to Muslims or risk violent reprisals, and Congressional bullies ordering the Smithsonian to censor an art exhibit or face death by de-funding is insignificant. In both cases artistic expression is being suppressed by religious zealotry and abuse of power. Boehner’s conduct, however, is worse. He is a high official of the United States government, and is charged with respecting the core American value of free expression.  This is no less than a betrayal of duty and principle. How can Americans decry efforts by Muslims to suppress our art, humor, and entertainment when the next Speaker of the House self-righteously does exactly the same thing?

Boehner’s bully act is disgraceful, discouraging, and scary….though not surprising. We have seen this kind of misplaced moralistic grandstanding before, and from the same people.

The usual rationalization for this kind of assault on creative output, again used by Boehner and his allies, is that taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for “offensive” art.  A more ignorant statement is hard to imagine. Different art speaks to different people, and shocking or offensive imagery have always been legitimate artistic tools. The public doesn’t dictate to artists, and art cannot be regulated like the ingredients on soup cans. Let curators do their jobs. Anyone who wants the likes of John Boehner deciding what we can  gaze at or listen to is asking for art museums filled with big eyed children and pastel landscapes.

[Special infamy in this matter is due to Fox, Newsbusters, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and others, who dishonestly worked to fan the flames of Christian outrage by referring to “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” as a Christmas exhibit. I assumed that a film of ants crawling on Jesus was part of a Smithsonian exhibit on “Christmas in America,” which did seem pretty inappropriate. The exhibit has been up since October 30, and runs until February 13, meaning that it is no more a “Christmas exhibit” than it is a Halloween exhibit, a Thanksgiving exhibit, a Veteran’s Day exhibit, a New Year’s Day exhibit, or a “Super Sunday” exhibit. The word for this kind of reporting is “lies.”]

Unbelievable. It took just one day for John Boehner to make me miss Nancy Pelosi.

Hey! Who wants to organize an “Everybody Dress Up Like Jesus and Have Ants Crawl On Them Day” for December 25?

12 thoughts on “Jesus, Ants, Art, and Republican Abuse of Power

  1. That’s the whole point. By the government. Investing/purchasing art is always going to be a matter of taste. I’m not particularly fond of abstract art, and so I don’t buy any. I don’t prevent someone who likes it from using their own money to buy it. But why should the government use my money to purchase or promote any kind of art, no matter what it is? That’s why, in my opinion, the National Endowment for the Arts should not be funded with taxpayer funds.

  2. Nah, governments have a legitimate function in providing art for the public because art is not viable commercially. The public is enriched by having national galleries, national theaters, etc. But that’s a different issue. IF the government is supplying art, it needs to be inclusive, not political, not exclusive. It needs to follow art, not lead it.

    If it were not for government support of art, most normal people would never have the chance to see a Van Gogh, a Winslow Homer or a Picasso. These things change and enrich lives. It’s a government function.

    • Then we have a difference of opinion as to what the function of government is–my over-simplified philosophy of government is that it is suposed to protect me from the animals and to standardize the scew threads.

    • This is where your argument runs into trouble. This is obviously political art. Publicly funded art has a definite partisan slant. Show me a similar exhibit that shows portraits of Mohammed, the NAACP leadership as a bunch of monkeys, celebrating Sarah Palin as a beacon of light, or any other expression patently offensive to liberals and I will withdraw my argument. The publicly funded art business has decided to play a definitely partisan political game. The cost of this stance is the political hardball described above. The real ethics dunces are the people at the NEA and the Smithsonian who have let publicly funded art have this political slant in the first place by funding exhibits like this and women who pour chocolate and sprouts on themselves to demonstrate how evil men are.

      • I don’t disagree that the NEA was being deliberately provocative–provocative gets attention. Orson Welles was being intentionally provocative when he produced “The Cradle Will Rock” in the middle of a depression. Art is often political and designed to poke convention in the eye. And it’s convention’s duty to take it, not suppress it. I keep hearing the Islam desecration argument—it doesn’t make sense, This is a largely Christian society, and it was a Christian artist. For what he wanted to do—show gays as martyrs to a degrading, unthinking scourge, Jesus was the best way to do it. Yes, Christians don’t kill heretics (any more) and that’s to their credit. It makes them easier to use in art than that other religion that puts the artist on a hit list. OK. So what?

        • Note: Christians do still kill heretics, just not in the US. It does occur in Africa and South America on occasion. Otherwise, I agree with your critiques.

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