Art, Offense, and Censorship

It is shaping up to be a strange week. Yesterday, I praised President Barack Obama (D) for his proposal to freeze pay for federal workers. Today, I am going to criticize a group of conservative Catholics.

A video called ‘A Fire in My Belly’ by David Wojnarowicz was on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery as part of an installation featuring 105 works of American art and culture from over the last century. This video, about four minutes long, includes a sequence of ants crawling on a crucifix and other seemingly anti-religious images—potentially offensive, yes, but nothing outside of the modern-art mainstream. Watch it for yourself.

When William Donahue of the Catholic League found out about Wojnarowicz’s piece being on display at the National Portrait Gallery, he and the organization issued a breathless press release in protest. In response to the following criticism, the Smithsonian Institution removed the piece from its exhibit and now some members of Congress are calling for an investigation and/or removing federal support for the Smithsonian.

Speaking as a conservative Catholic myself, I can say that this is absolute absurdity. Wojnarowicz’s work was not created with federal funding, and it appeared in a museum that also displays plenty of religious art (including Catholic art). The ‘ants on a crucifix’ scene formed less than 5 percent of Wojnarowicz’s video, and the video made up less than 1 percent of the exhibit. I don’t have the numbers to back it up, but I’m reasonably certain that Catholic art makes up a higher percentage of the National Portrait Gallery’s collection than this tiny bit of supposed anti-Catholicism.

Yeah, sure, the ants on the crucifix were probably unnecessary, but I didn’t exactly feel attacked by it. The video didn’t really say . . . anything. It’s your standard, mediocre crap masquerading as high art. I found it more pretentious and meaningless than offensive.

It is troubling to me that the Catholic League thinks the Smithsonian should censor Wojnarowicz’s piece. We Catholics should be encouraging a critical discussion of our faith, not playing into the stereotypes that unfairly color us as repressive, incurious, and easily offended. We should be facing down and civilly criticizing gibberish like ‘A Fire in My Belly,’ not seeking to move it out of the public square. Further, the Catholic League undermines its own stated mission in seeking to exile the piece from the National Portrait Gallery. Formally called the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (emphasis added), its own ‘About’ page states the following:

Motivated by the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment, the Catholic League works to safeguard both the religious freedom rights and the free speech rights of Catholics whenever and wherever they are threatened. (Emphasis added.)

The spirit of the First Amendment, and safeguarding free speech rights, means that you and I and Wojnarowicz and the Smithsonian Institution have a right to be offensive. If you don’t like it, don’t participate . . . or criticize the piece on its merits (or lack thereof) in your own forum. Don’t demand its removal; engage in the discussion like an adult. Explain to people why you find it offensive. Make a counter-video with ants crawling over the original video. Stand outside the National Portrait Gallery handing out crucifixes and pamphlets. You have plenty of perfectly appropriate ways to respond to something you find offensive by using your own First Amendment rights. You even have the right to be offensive too, if you want.

The Smithsonian’s job isn’t to please everybody, or host a bland collection of inoffensive and uninspiring artistic work. Its mission is to be “an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge.” It should reflect the entirety of American society: offensive and inoffensive, orthodox and revolutionary, bounded and boundary-pushing. Some of it will be crap. Some of it will be offensive. Deal with it.

Back in 2006, I wrote about Elephant Dung and Mohammed Cartoons and discussed this very issue. At the time, many Muslims were up-in-arms (in some places, literally) over the publishing of several cartoons depicting Mohammed (founder of Islam) in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Civil libertarians around the world, myself included, condemned the condemners in the name of protecting free speech. Today I do the same thing again.

I don’t like Wojnarowicz’s video, nor do I support the message it is apparently trying to send. That doesn’t mean I think it should be kept out of the Smithsonian. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall once eloquently said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.