WaPo Art Critic Rants at Removal of Ant-Covered Jesus; He'd Ban Norman Rockwell

Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik is hopping mad that the National Portrait Gallery pulled a video from its "Hide/Seek" exhibit on homosexual imagery, insisting: "Now the NPG, and the Smithsonian Institution it is part of, look set to come off as cowards." Gopnik insisted the ant-covered Jesus in the video was inconsequential, and that if he played censor, he'd keep the insect-covered Christ and scrap the Norman Rockwell:

Norman Rockwell would get the boot, too, if I believed in pulling everything that I'm offended by: I can't stand the view of America that he presents, which I feel insults a huge number of us non-mainstream folks. But I didn't call for the Smithsonian American Art Museum to pull the Rockwell show that runs through Jan. 2, just down the hall from "Hide/Seek." Rockwell and his admirers got to have their say, and his detractors, including me, got to rant about how much they hated his art. Censorship would have prevented that discussion, and that's why we don't allow it.

Back then, on July 4, Gopnik sneered at Rockwell: "He had almost preternatural social intuitions, along with brilliant skills as a visual salesman. Over his seven-decade career, that coupling let him figure out what middle-class white Americans most wanted to feel about themselves, then sell it back to them in paint."

And: "Rockwell's art makes Rockwell's America seem natural and necessary. His easy, untroubled realism is the perfect vehicle for an image of the nation as easygoing and untroubled: Looking at (or through) a Rockwell surface is as painless as living in a Rockwell world."

And: "Rockwell panders, in the very substance of his pictures' making, to his public's fear of change. Rockwell's greatest sin as an artist is simple: His is an art of unending cliché. The reason we so easily "recognize ourselves" in his paintings is because they reflect the standard image we already know. His stories resonate so strongly because they are the stories we've told ourselves a thousand times."

But, finally, Gopnik declared he wants art that serves the profane and the cynical and the off-beat hipsters (including himself): "America isn't about Rockwell's one-note image of it -- or anyone else's. This country is about a game-changing guarantee that equal room will be made for Latino socialists, disgruntled lesbian spinsters, foul-mouthed Jewish comics and even, dare I say it, for metrosexual half-Canadian art critics with a fondness for offal, spinets and kilts."

I can't believe I missed this fusillade at the time. 

Does Gopnik believe no one makes art to pander to his preferences? That artists don't seek to curry the favor of jaded art critics and gallery and museum operators? Or exhibit funders, like the gay and lesbian foundations that supported this exhibit? Here's the gist of Gopnik's complaint today about the cowardly curators:

Today, after a few hours of pressure from the Catholic League and various conservatives, it decided to remove a video by David Wojnarowicz, a gay artist who died from AIDS-related illness in 1992. As part of "Hide/Seek," the gallery was showing a four-minute excerpt from a 1987 piece titled "A Fire in My Belly," made in honor of Peter Hujar, an artist-colleague and lover of Wojnarowicz who had died of AIDS complications in 1987. And for 11 seconds of that meandering, stream-of-consciousness work (the full version is 30 minutes long) a crucifix appears onscreen with ants crawling on it. It seems such an inconsequential part of the total video that neither I nor anyone I've spoken to who saw the work remembered it at all.

But that is the portion of the video that the Catholic League has decried as "designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians," and described as "hate speech" - despite the artist's own hopes that the passage would speak to the suffering of his dead friend. The irony is that Wojnarowicz's reading of his piece puts it smack in the middle of the great tradition of using images of Christ to speak about the suffering of all mankind. There is a long, respectable history of showing hideously grisly images of Jesus - 17th-century sculptures in the National Gallery's recent show of Spanish sacred art could not have been more gory or distressing - and Wojnarowicz's video is nothing more than a relatively tepid reworking of that imagery, in modern terms.

Until Tuesday afternoon, museum staff, under Director Martin E. Sullivan, believed that "Fire" was interesting art that made important points. And now it looks as though they're somehow saying that they were wrong about that, and that it really was unfit to be seen or shown, after all.

If every piece of art that offended some person or some group was removed from a museum, our museums might start looking empty - or would contain nothing more than pabulum. Goya's great nudes? Gone. The Inquisition called them porn.

Gopnik compared the Catholic League to an angry set of imams -- as if there's a recent example of a Smithsonian exhibit offending Muslims. Anyone remember the Mohammed cartoon show at the National Portrait Gallery?

In America no one group - and certainly no single religion - gets to declare what the rest of us should see and hear and think about. Aren't those kinds of declarations just what extremist imams get up to, in countries with less freedom?

Of course, it's pretty clear that this has almost nothing to do with religion. Eleven seconds of an ant-covered crucifix? Come on.

This fuss is about the larger topic of the show: Gay love, and images of it. The headline that ran over coverage of the matter on the right-wing Web site CNSnews.com mentioned the crucifix -- but as only one item in a list of the exhibition's "shockers" that included "naked brothers kissing, genitalia and Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts." (Through a bra, one might note, in an image that's less shocking than many moves by Lady Gaga.) The same site decries "a painting the Smithsonian itself describes in the show's catalog as 'homoerotic'. "

The attack is on gayness, and images of it, more than on sacrilege - even though, last I checked, many states are sanctioning gay love in marriage, and none continue to ban homosexuality.

And the Portrait Gallery has given into this attack.

For a guy who opposes cliches, Gopnik ends with one of the hoariest: if you don't like it, don't see it. (But of course, pay for it, since the Smithsonian gets most of its funding from the federal government.)

Artists have the right to express themselves. Curators have the right to choose the expression they think matters most. And the rest of us have the right to see that expression, and judge those choices for ourselves.

If anyone's offended by any work in any museum, they have the easiest redress: They can vote with their feet, and avoid the art they don't like.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis