A few weeks ago, we mentioned a great exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery called Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. We were thrilled that a comprehensive and sensitive exhibit had been carefully put together documenting the work of queer artists and their queer subjects. We were excited that someone was acknowledging how many incredible, brave, groundbreaking artists are queer, and that the way we see the world is important, and the way we see each other is beautiful and good. This was a thing that warmed our hearts, a thing that made us feel like there was a place for us in the world, like we had successfully carved out a little warm space to live and breathe in.
House Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Tuesday called for the dismantling of an exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery after they learned that it contains video of a Jesus statue with ants crawling on it, as well as works of art with strongly sexual themes.
GUESS WHICH EXHIBIT THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT.
If you’re looking for something to rage about/spit your coffee at the screen about in angry disbelief, feel free to read the whole thing! If you feel like you have better ways to spend your time, and I don’t blame you if you do, let me sum this up for you:
+ I don’t know if you heard, but after the November elections there’s a new Republican majority in Washington, and the National Portrait Gallery had better apologize for this “mistake” and cancel the exhibit before that takes effect.
+ The museum takes some taxpayer money, and therefore is obligated to “maintain common standards of decency.”
+ OMFG JESUS.
+ Did we mention that it’s “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christian season”? The Christmas season that starts in early November, because that’s roughly when this exhibit was opened?
This is so many levels of unbelievable it’s hard to know where to start. First and foremost, the notion that the art world needs to tailor its output to reflect the tastes of the political party currently in power is fascist. Not in a “throwing the word around because I’m angry at the government and Stalin was really bad” kind of way, but in that it was a notable characteristic of fascist and otherwise dangerous and tyrannical regimes. Which is hilarious when you start waxing nostalgic about all the OBAMA = SOCIALIST signs, isn’t it?
Secondly, it’s so horrifying it almost laps itself into being amazing that we can still be arguing about whether art with “sexual themes” is okay, or whether it breaks some “common standard of decency.” Since most of the works in the National PORTRAIT Gallery are, you know, PORTRAITS, it’s hard to believe that any of these are particularly pornographic. If I had to guess, I’d bet they’re most offended by works of Robert Mapplethorpe, which do often feature naked men.
I’m sorry, but I find it hard to believe that that’s a valid concern for the incoming Republican government.
Did someone already balance the budget and I missed it?
But hey, if you wanna talk about standards of common decency, fine. Let’s do this. As of August, there were roughly 180,000 untested rape kits nationwide – that we knew of- many of which were concentrated in Republican states, like Alaska and California. A conservative magistrate recently advocated the “conversion” i.e. corrective rape of lesbians in the military. George W. Bush was ruled to have disregarded our constitutional rights by invading citizens’ privacy with secret surveillance. Oh, and speaking of Robert Mapplethorpe? He died of AIDS. Which Reagan’s Republican government stood by and watched kill thousands of people because they were socially undesirable. Maybe we have a different understanding of “common standards of decency,” but I personally feel that if I had to pick which one of those things violates them, it would not be the photograph of a penis.
And honestly, this Jesus thing? I was raised Christian, and I cannot even conceive of how documenting ants crawling over a statue of Jesus could possibly be offensive. JESUS MADE THE ANTS TOO. There’s that part right in the Bible where he says “let the ants come unto me.” It’s something like that. And even if this was offensive? Sorry, that still doesn’t justify shutting it down.
Aggressively bringing your personal faith into the realm of politics is one thing, but claiming icons of your religion as emblematic of some sort of governmental authority and therefore off-limits for any kind of criticism or even not-uniformly-positive portrayal? Does that contradict every value of democracy, freedom of expression, and individuality that America is founded on, or is that just me?
In short, I don’t know very much about art, or about What America Stands For. But it seems to me that stifling art and the appreciation of it because it doesn’t look like how you personally want America to look is actually the exact opposite of what America is about. But I don’t represent a majority in Congress, so never mind.