Art Critics

The Religious Right Wants To Decide What Everyone Gets To See


The new Republican leadership in the House of Representatives is off to a bad start. Even before assuming their new positions, Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor demanded that the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., remove portions of an exhibit that some Religious Right activists deemed offensive.

The Smithsonian Institution, which oversees the gallery, immediately caved and pulled a short video by the late artist David Wojnarowicz. The segment in question showed some ants crawling on a crucifix. It was all of 11 seconds long.

Boehner and Cantor acted at the behest of William Donohue, the garrulous president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Donohue insisted that the video was anti-Catholic. He had no evidence for this – he just had an opinion. That was enough for the new GOP leaders.

But what if Donohue’s opinion is ill-informed? Perhaps Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992, was making a comment about the suffering endured by that disease’s victims. Christians believe that Jesus Christ suffered on the cross – and it’s likely those torments included insects crawling on his skin.

Yet, according to Donohue, it’s forbidden to depict this in art. Why? Because Donohue doesn’t care for it.

And therein lies one of the great overlooked threats of censorship: We all get dragged down to the level of the dense, the dim and the deceived. Because Donohue couldn’t immediately grasp Wojnarowicz’s message – and couldn’t conceive that the art could be anything but mocking in tone – the piece was removed from a tax-funded museum. Donohue’s crude interpretation of this work became the standard for us all.

This happened even though Donohue and other religious censors of his ilk have been proven wrong time and again. It happened even though they’ve repeatedly tried to block access to art, books and films now considered classics. It happened even though they presume to use their narrow understanding of faith as the lens through which all art is judged.

It shouldn’t have happened. Religious censors must be opposed, not placated.

The Smithsonian includes some of the greatest museums in the world. They contain plenty of beautiful art dealing with religious and non-religious themes. Some of these works are very straightforward, while others are challenging and require some thought. It’s part of a museum’s job to prod us to think every now and then.

It’s a shame that a museum of such quality gave in so quickly to the narrow-minded legions of the Religious Right. Actually, it’s more than a shame. It’s an abdication of responsibility.