Is the censored David Wojnarowicz video really ‘anti-Christian’?


This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Earlier this week Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough ordered the removal of a short video-excerpt from a critically acclaimed exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Bowing to a classic case of “manufactured outrage” from a few Republican politicians and conservative pressure groups –- all but one of whom, interestingly enough, gave no indication that they had actually seen the exhibition they condemned -- Clough’s unfortunate decision gave tacit credence to their claim that the censored art is “anti-Christian.”

Is it?

The short answer is no. The longer answer is that it does rail against those who profess Christian compassion but fail to enact it.


The 13-minute video, “A Fire in My Belly” (1987) by David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) is in part a terrifying shriek against the shocking social indifference to the AIDS crisis then engulfing the United States. (You can watch the show’s short excerpt of the video here, but I would caution that it contains some brutal and sexually explicit imagery.) Writing of President Reagan in the Washington Post in late 1985, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Beverly Hills, noted: ‘It is surprising that the president could remain silent as 6,000 Americans died, that he could fail to acknowledge the epidemic’s existence. Perhaps his staff felt he had to, since many of his New Right supporters have raised money by campaigning against homosexuals.’

President Reagan’s first remarks on the disease came on May 31, 1987, after more than 20,000 Americans had died. Congress did not enact the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act until three years later. The four-minute video excerpt at the National Portrait Gallery, part of the large exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” includes four brief shots of ants crawling over a small crucifix, which has what appears to be actual blood flowing from the wound in Christ’s side. These images, which last less than 15 seconds, are what some claim to be anti-Christian.

Objectively speaking, an artist bent on making an anti-Christian diatribe would not spend just 15 seconds of a 13-minute video making it. Those images instead serve another function: To rebuke the same self-righteous moralism of those who are attacking the Smithsonian now.

Ants and bugs are an age-old artistic symbol that laments the frailty of human beings and earthly existence. As Ecclesiastes puts it: Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas -- “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” Ant-covered flora, bodies and animals turn up in everything from still life paintings in the largely Protestant 17th-century Netherlands to the silent Surrealist film, “An Andalusian Dog” (1929) by the Spanish director Luis Bunuel and artist Salvador Dali, a conservative Catholic.

In the Wojnarowicz video, the vanitas theme plays out on a crucifix not as a religious slur, but as a lament for earthly failures among those who should know better at a time of epic tragedy. Small wonder that some who failed then take offense at being reminded of it now.

-- Christopher Knight


Recent and related:

Art review: The Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Art review: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance at the Metopolitan Museum of Art

Real housewives of Boston