Alex Blaze

If we're a Christian nation, then shouldn't we all be allowed to criticize Christianity?

Filed By Alex Blaze | December 02, 2010 5:30 PM | comments

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I wanted to write about the controversy surrounding "Fire in my Belly" by David Wojnarowicz and Diamanda Galas, the film that got pulled from the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery because Bill Donohue complained (he's apparently a trained curator and gets a veto on other curators' work).

But since it's too easy to discuss the politics of this without the substance, here's the film itself, which is NSFW, even if you work in an art museum now. It was produced in 1987 in response to AIDS.

Remember, someone watched this, paternalistically thought it was too much for the average American, and decided that it had to be hidden or destroyed lest it hurt others.

Here's what the gallery's director had to say in a statement when he pulled the video:

Nope, that bluster was enough to turn the Smithsonian, America's most prominent cultural institution, totally chicken and pull the video. On Tuesday, NPG director Martin Sullivan issued a statement that read, "I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious. In fact, the artist's intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. It was not the museum's intention to offend. We are removing the video today."

Not only should the video be put back up, but he shouldn't be directing the gallery. If his actual intent is keep people in a warm, protective bubble in which they'll never be confronted with anything that challenges them, then he perhaps he could go work for Disney. Speaking out and having a real message on anything, absolutely anything, will always cause a controversy, will always offend someone. The only way that a work of art could avoid offending is if it has no meaning to anyone at all.

But I don't think that's what Sullivan actually meant, since there's still plenty of art in the gallery that has meaning for lots of people. What he probably meant was that art shouldn't offend the right people. It shouldn't offend people like Bill Donohue, someone who represents no one and who's completely offensive.

No one would have cared, fortunately, about Donohue's complaint if the GOP didn't pick it up. Republicans are used to being offensive for the sake of offensive, saying whatever they think will get a rise out of people, so here's Eric Cantor (who's completely willing to condone offensive speech when it comes from conservative activists who are "frightened" by taxes but not from gays in the late 80's who might also be "frightened" by HIV):

The move comes after a series of complaints from conservative leaders. Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor called it "an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season."

The issue isn't offensiveness, and when the blatant hypocrisy of the people who are speaking out on this is taken into consideration, it's more obvious that it's just a power dynamic. The video itself is a criticism of religion, specifically Christianity, because of many Christians' complicity in the HIV epidemic and stigmatizing people with HIV/AIDS. The woman repeating and stressing the word "unclean" in the background, referring to actual people as being unclean in order to marginalize them and keep them in their place.

Now, calling an entire group of people unclean is offensive to those people, and that's why the GOP and Bill Donohue wanted the piece pulled. In an authoritarian structure, respect goes in one direction and criticism goes in the other. It's fine for Christian leaders to insult everyone else, but no one can even criticize them.

Anyway, this is all interesting in the context of the Religious Right's other favorite argument, that this is a Christian nation. We're all supposed to recognize that, even if we aren't personally Christian, our country is and it should respect that religion and promote it. That should mean that we all get to criticize Christianity, since we're all a part of it and we all have some ownership of that religion, but then when someone does it's "an attack on Christians" and "hate speech" from the outside.

They're a powerless minority being attacked from the outside who just so happens to own the most powerful nation in the world, so their sensibilities must be deferred to for both of those contradictory reasons.


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Diamanda Galas's vocals in the background are actually her reading from Leviticus. "When any man hath an issue out of his flesh, because of that issue he is unclean, every bed whereon he lieth is unclean," etc. etc.

I think it's interesting that they're complaining about the image of a crucifix being crawled on by ants, but they don't complain about the inclusion of a Bible verse. Maybe because they agree with the message that people with AIDS and those who associate them (read as: their image of gay people) are unclean?

I hope John Boehner gets skin cancer from all those tanning beds.

Kevin Erickson | December 2, 2010 6:16 PM

i don't think it's even true that the video is a criticism of religion. Its use of religious imagery is much much more complicated than that.

to be clear, the video that was removed from the NPG was NOT David Wojnarowicz's "Fire in My Belly," but a gnarled, edited excerpt from it that removed nearly all of the sexually explicit representations of gay male sexuality and replaced what was an interesting series of diatribes and eerie vocals with a bland ACT UP chant.

The other video in the show, Pink Narcissus, was also chopped and edited in a similar disappointing fashion.

Censorship of this show began long before the exhibition opened and I'm pissed about all of it. But then again, I'm always pissed off, right?

expect a longer posting from me about this soon...

Being Poz, lots of emotions ran through my head when I watched the piece. If we're truly going to be P.C., all religious criticism needs to be avoided. After all, "What is sauce for the goose may be sauce for the gander . . ."

"If we're a Christian nation, then shouldn't we all be allowed to criticize Christianity?"

Apparently you're unfamiliar with the Inquisition's position on dissenting views.