What is so offensive about ants crawling over a cheap plastic crucifix?

So the Smithsonian caved in  and decided to censor a video  from a larger showing of work by the controversial GLBT artist, David Wojnarowicz .   The image above,  taken from a longer scene , was apparently offensive to some influential Christians.

“I think that in the artistic community, directors, curators are tremendously insensitive to Christians,”  You can’t make fun of the Holocaust, you can’t make fun of black slavery, and you can’t even depict anything about Mohammed.”  – Bill Donahue, Catholic League President

(Sounds like Mr.Donahue is really peeved that he can’t make fun of blacks and Muslims and get away with it. Sour grapes.)

“American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds. While the amount of money involved may be small, it’s symbolic of the arrogance Washington routinely applies to thousands of spending decisions involving Americans’ hard-earned money. Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January [when the new majority in the House moves in].” – John Boehner, incoming Speaker of the House

(In other words: a shake down)

Now the film itself is pretty disturbing and many will, understandably, find  it’s more explicit moments offensive .  But the part that is getting all the attention is where real live ants are crawling over a cheap plastic crucifix.  I don’t know if Wojnarowicz staged this, it certainly could be something he stumbled upon, but what exactly is the big deal? It’s not as over the top as Serrano’s “Piss Christ”, of which the most offensive aspect is probably the title.  If Serrano hadn’t told us, we would think he had taken the shot through an amber filter (but then it would have gotten little media attention).  According to the Serrano,  even that photograph was never meant to be a critique of religion per se,  but rather a commentary on the cheapening of Christian icons by today’s culture (something we see a lot of this time of year).  By comparison,  Wojnarowicz’s crucifix is much tamer and I doubt if it would have upset these people if  he hadn’t been homosexual.

So what’s the  theological concern here? Are cheap plastic crucifixes sacred? What about a dashboard Jesus?  Or porcelain angels? What do ants crawling on a crucifix mean to us?  Wojnarowicz  is certainly telling us something here.  But I would imagine, as with most art, the message is different for each person listening.  I wonder what message  the censorship advocates are receiving. Whatever it was, it likely was filtered through their perception of the artist’s sexual orientation.

To me, this image suggest that the institutional Church, with it’s cathedrals, statues, seminaries, doctrines, dogmas, creeds and icons, is as much a product of the complex human mind as the holy (and unholy) trinkets that clutter our lives. And as such, is just as likely to be cast off, either by those who have lost interest or by those who have grown beyond its allure.  So it is best not to pay too much attention to the trinkets or we may miss the bigger picture, which involves Jesus as artist, and not subject.   A picture that Mr. Boehner and Mr. Donahue and so many religious people seem to have missed.


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  1. #1 by chemicalmarriage on December 15, 2010 - 4:08 pm

    My first thought is: Knee-jerk reaction. I imagine people rasied a fuss because of the use of a Christian symbol without really asking why they felt they way they do. That said, it is difficult for someone like me to fully understand the issue without seeing the whole film. I may be missing something in context.

    In my view, we should be free to associate whatever symbols needed to relate an idea, be it crosses, slavery, or muslims. I realize many people would disagree, and it will be a long time for such bias to be bred out of us.

    I wonder how people would have reacted if the symbol covered with ants was different: a peace sign coverd in ants? A dollar? A condom? A paintbrush?

  2. #2 by philosopoet on December 16, 2010 - 11:28 am

    “So it is best not to pay too much attention to the trinkets or we may miss the bigger picture, which involves Jesus as artist, and not subject.”

    …while I agree, and applaud your thinking, it does seem that one persons trinket is another persons holy vector to the sacred.

    To me an icon is only a vector…a doorway, and as such is just an object, but to some, especially those who are unsteady, or who view their faith as being under attack, ants crawling over a crucifix is a sacrilege…

    To understand Jesus as the artist and not the subject takes a larger understanding of faith and all its attendants then most sheep have the wool to cover…touché Christian…

    • #3 by Christian Beyer on December 16, 2010 - 12:23 pm

      I see your point and agree about the importance of sacred “things” in our lives (they need not be religious). I personally enjoy celebrating a variety of sacred traditions. We are physical being and as such may find it difficult, if not impossible, to explore our spirituality without these vectors. But I think they need to be held loosely.

      I am reminded of the changes the Roman Catholic church went through in the sixties. So many people (many in my family) left the church and left God because of the loss of those things they held to be sacred.

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