The Art of Censorship: Catholic League, Congressional Allies Push 'Sacrilegious' Video from National Portrait Gallery

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, January 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Art of Censorship: Catholic League, Congressional Allies Push 'Sacrilegious' Video from National Portrait Gallery


Boston, Rob, Church & State


Sometime around 1800, Spanish painter Francisco Jose de Goya completed what is considered one of his greatest works: "The Naked Maja" depicts a young woman, completely nude, reclining on a couch.

The Spanish Inquisition was not impressed with Goya's effort. In 1815, Roman Catholic clergy representing the Inquisition - it existed until 1834 - summoned the painter and demanded to know who had commissioned this work, which they labeled "obscene." Not long after that, Goya lost his position as official painter to the Spanish court.

It's not known what Goya told the Inquisition, but history vindicated the artist. Today "The Naked Maja" is on display at the Museo del Prado in Madrid and is considered a national treasure.

The battle over Goya's painting wasn't the first skirmish between religion and the world of art, and it certainly won't be the last. The truth is, religiously based censorship by the government has a long history in Europe and the United States - and, thanks to recent political changes, it may be on the upswing here.

Religious Right activists, feeling emboldened by their successes in the November elections, are on the prowl against "obscene" or "blasphemous" art, especially in tax-funded museums.

In December, they scored a major win when the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., agreed to remove a brief video that had been attacked as "sacrilegious" by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and other far-right groups.

The video in question was part of a larger exhibit called "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," which explores questions of gender identity in American history through art. The exhibit contains works by several artists, including Georgia O'Keeffe, David Hockney, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.

The controversial video is by the late David Wojnarowicz, a performance artist who worked in several media. Titled "Fire in My Belly," it is about four minutes long and includes an 11-second segment that shows ants crawling on a crucifix.

Some art critics believed that Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992, was making a statement about the suffering of those who have the disease, but Wendy Olsoff, a gallery owner in New York City who represents Wojnarowicz's estate, said the artist viewed ants as a microcosm of human society and often showed them in his work crawling on lots of different objects.

"It was not about Christ," Olsoff told The Washington Post. "It was just about institutionalized religion."

Nevertheless, the Smithsonian yanked the entire video after House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor attacked the work.

"American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy," Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Boehner, told The Post. "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."

Cantor went a step further, demanding that the entire exhibit be shut down. He called it an "outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season."

Perhaps hoping to spark his own inquisition of the medieval variety, U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) a day later upped the ante, insisting that Congress launch an official investigation into the matter.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State had a different take on the controversy.

"Boehner and Cantor aren't even in control of the House yet, and already they're kowtowing to the Religious Right," said Barry W Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This is religiously based censorship, pure and simple - and it's reprehensible.

"If some people believe a show like this offends their religious sensibilities, the answer is for them not to go to it," Lynn added.

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