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Holy Moly!

David Wojnarowicz

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Right, I know you believe that.

It has nothing in the world to do with what I believe or don't believe, or Colbert or your boyfriend. The Church teaches that the task of authentically interpreting the word of God belongs to the Magisterium.

They're still catholic by self-identification and by every sociological measure.

They are Catholic, but this has nothing to do either with self-identification or with "sociological measures." They are Catholic by the Church's own canons. The Church says they are Catholic. Bad Catholics.

They have a different view of authority than you. And a lot of catholics are like this.

If a lot of Americans were Communists or fascists, America would still be a democratic republic until and unless the Constitution and the government was changed. The Church is not a democracy no matter how many Catholics think it should be.

And speaking in terms of civil society, I don't know why their views on what is offensive to Catholicism or isnt are worth less than yours.

It's not a matter of credentials. The facts are what they are. I've made the case for my interpretation of the facts. Other interpretations can be advocated, but not all interpretations are equally plausible or have equal explanatory power.

In particular, trying to argue that something isn't offensive to Catholics when Catholics are offended is a little like the priest explaining to a scandalized parishioner that it's okay to give a church funeral to a mafioso because canon law provides that this can be permissible if there is no danger of scandal. Um, but the parishioner is scandalized. Likewise, obviously Catholics do find profaning the crucifix in artwork offensive.

BTW, evidence for your claims re. Colbert's views?

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Nope. That's not one of the possibilities. What it means to be a faithful Catholic is not in dispute, nor is it up to you, me, Stephen Colbert or anyone else to decide for themselves what it means. We aren't in the realm of personal recognizance here; here we are in the realm of "authoritarian" answers. Within the Catholic Church, the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God in sacred scripture and sacred tradition has been entrusted solely to the living Magisterium, commissioned by Jesus Christ through the apostolic succession of bishops. What it means to be a faithful Catholic is set forth in the teachings of the Church.

Right, I know you believe that. Stephen Colbert doesn't and neither does my Catholic boyfriend. They're still catholic by self-identification and by every sociological measure. They have a different view of authority than you. And a lot of catholics are like this. It is, as Colbert notes, the hallmark of American Catholicism. This is perhaps an inconvenient truth for you, but it IS the truth.

I hope a reply by another Catholic may be helpful.

Catholicism is a creedal religion. To be a Catholic, we ask that everyone be willing to assent to the creed--otherwise they can't be in full communion with our community. Note that Catholic by its linguistic roots means that American Catholicism cannot be, at heart, different from Italian Catholicism or African Catholicism or any other kind of Catholicism.

Part of our creed professes our belief in the "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church". Therefore, when a Catholic professes his/her faith, that faith is in the Church, not just in Christ. Otherwise, we would be Protestants.

It seems to me that how your boyfriend understands his Catholicism makes him a Protestant. I say that not to insult him -- being a Protestant is a noble thing to be -- but as a matter of fact. The creed itself contains a profession of faith in ecclesiastical authority.

FWIW, I am not at all ready to say what Colbert's opinion is on authority, or on many other things!

Edit: SDG and I were typing at the same time, he says it better than I do.

Edited by David Smedberg

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It seems to me that how your boyfriend understands his Catholicism makes him a Protestant. I say that not to insult him -- being a Protestant is a noble thing to be -- but as a matter of fact. The creed itself contains a profession of faith in ecclesiastical authority.

Caveat: A Catholic who dissents from Catholic teaching is "Protestant" in an adjectival sense, adhering to one extent or another to the Protestant principle of private interpretation. However, canonically speaking, if you were baptized Catholic, you're Catholic, even if you're a bad Catholic.

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FWIW, I am not at all ready to say what Colbert's opinion is on authority, or on many other things!

One might infer his opinion about the Wojnarowicz video from his recent show on the topic. But one might not be inferring correctly. At face value, it might seem that he was sending up Eric Cantor and playing it straight with all the artists who appeared on the show. And that would be amusing. But it's just possible that he was actually skewering everyone who participated -- up to and including Andres Serrano and Steve Martin. And that would be brilliant.

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FWIW, I am not at all ready to say what Colbert's opinion is on authority, or on many other things!

One might infer his opinion about the Wojnarowicz video from his recent show on the topic. But one might not be inferring correctly. At face value, it might seem that he was sending up Eric Cantor and playing it straight with all the artists who appeared on the show. And that would be amusing. But it's just possible that he was actually skewering everyone who participated -- up to and including Andres Serrano and Steve Martin. And that would be brilliant.

link?

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It seems to me that how your boyfriend understands his Catholicism makes him a Protestant. I say that not to insult him -- being a Protestant is a noble thing to be -- but as a matter of fact. The creed itself contains a profession of faith in ecclesiastical authority.

Caveat: A Catholic who dissents from Catholic teaching is "Protestant" in an adjectival sense, adhering to one extent or another to the Protestant principle of private interpretation. However, canonically speaking, if you were baptized Catholic, you're Catholic, even if you're a bad Catholic.

Interesting. Speaking as a bad Catholic, I had no idea that I had no other options :)

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Caveat: A Catholic who dissents from Catholic teaching is "Protestant" in an adjectival sense, adhering to one extent or another to the Protestant principle of private interpretation. However, canonically speaking, if you were baptized Catholic, you're Catholic, even if you're a bad Catholic.

Interesting. Speaking as a bad Catholic, I had no idea that I had no other options :)

Touche. :) By "bad Catholic" I really mean "dissenting Catholic." We may also speak here, technically, of the sin of incredulity, i.e., disbelief regarding revealed truth. And if the revealed truth is also defined dogma, then of course we're in the realm of heresy.

Edited by SDG

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link?

Link.

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]If a lot of Americans were Communists or fascists, America would still be a democratic republic until and unless the Constitution and the government was changed. The Church is not a democracy no matter how many Catholics think it should be.

But America is a democracy, and so when evaluating something like this in a civil context where the Vatican has no special authority, the question of the Church's official position becomes secondary to the actual beliefs of actual humans, some of whom are offended, and some of whom are not. Religious authority governs the use of symbols in the life of religious institutions and faith practices. Civil authority governs the use of symbols in civic life.

In particular, trying to argue that something isn't offensive to Catholics when Catholics are offended is a little like the priest explaining to a scandalized parishioner that it's okay to give a church funeral to a mafioso because canon law provides that this can be permissible if there is no danger of scandal. Um, but the parishioner is scandalized. Likewise, obviously Catholics do find profaning the crucifix in artwork offensive.

Some Catholics do find it offensive, some Catholics don't. So calling it "offensive to Catholics" is factually inaccurate; it's offensive to some Catholics. Possibly many catholics. But it's not "offensive to Catholics" as a group. (Furthermore, Catholics who do find it offensive may have any number of ideas about what the appropriate response to offensive art, or whether there is any problem with displaying art that offends them.) This isn't a theological claim, it's a sociological claim.

You are free to argue that it's against Church teachings to allow such a display to stand. You are free to believe that all Catholics should find it offensive. Others may believe that no-one should find it offensive. But it is intellectually dishonest to argue as if your viewpoint is the only point of view held by Catholics. It is intellectually dishonest to pretend that your viewpoint is THE Catholic viewpoint.

Permit me a metaphor; there are contexts, such as in international relations, where Barack Obama's position can be viewed as America's position, because they are contexts where Barack Obama's authority is recognized. There are other contexts, where Barack Obama's position cannot be viewed as America's position because he has no special authority.

If we asked what America's position is on arms reduction, we would look to Barack Obama to answer the question. If we asked what the national anthem was, the government's authority on this question would be recognized. If we asked what America's favorite patriotic song is, though, it doesn't matter so much if Barack likes Stevie Wonder's version of America the Beautiful the best. His opinion might be influential, but has no special authority in this area. If everyone likes "God Bless The USA" better, that's just how it is.

BTW, evidence for your claims re. Colbert's views?

Here.

Edited by Holy Moly!

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]If a lot of Americans were Communists or fascists, America would still be a democratic republic until and unless the Constitution and the government was changed. The Church is not a democracy no matter how many Catholics think it should be.

But America is a democracy, and so when evaluating something like this in a civil context where the Vatican has no special authority, the question of the Church's official position becomes secondary to the actual beliefs of actual humans, some of whom are offended, and some of whom are not. Religious authority governs the use of symbols in the life of religious institutions and faith practices. Civil authority governs the use of symbols in civic life.

You're veering back and forth between two different questions in two different spheres. "What about Wojnarowicz?" is a very different question from "Who is a faithful Catholic?"

You are free to argue that it's against Church teachings to allow such a display to stand. You are free to believe that all Catholics should find it offensive. Others may believe that no-one should find it offensive. But it is intellectually dishonest to pretend like your viewpoint is the only point of view held by Catholics. It is intellectually dishonest to pretend that your viewpoint is THE Catholic viewpoint.

Likewise, the n-word is not offensive to blacks. You are free to believe that all blacks should find it offensive; others may believe that no one should find it offensive, etc.

BTW, evidence for your claims re. Colbert's views?

Here.

Colbert says here "I don't believe that I can't disagree with my church." About what, he doesn't say. There is a sense in which this is true: Within the scope of legitimate Catholic opinion there is some latitude for disagreement with the Church regarding matters of prudential judgment, such as the death penalty, the justice of a particular war, clerical celibacy, liturgical norms, etc. It is possible, though not clear from these brief remarks, that Colbert dissents on a wider scope than that. I wouldn't bandy about confident assertions regarding Colbert's views solely on the basis of these brief remarks, though more evidence could clarify the question one way or the other.

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Well, you can say it, but I say the precise reason that it's such an arresting and controversial image is that unlike most of his works, it does observe aesthetic principles.

I don't see what's so arresting by the "piss Christ" image itself - it's a foggy, yellow picture of a crucifix. It's the knowledge of what the image consists of, and how the guy made it, that is controversial and offensive. The arresting nature of it is knowing the deliberate act that the artist wants you to know is what made the image. Any untalented and untrained college student could have made the same thing. So how does that follow any "aesthetic principles" exactly?

So I don't want to keep doing this too often, but I've read a ton of his books, and I found a William F. Buckley (a devoted Catholic, btw) column on the controversy over Serrano, addressing many of the exact arguments going back and forth on this thread. Yes, I understand Serrano involved the NEA, and Wojnarowicz involves the Smithsonian, but the principles are still the same.

It's from his book, Happy Days Were Here Again, and entitled "Understanding Mapplethorpe." Here's part of the column (which is responding to a column by Anthony Lewis linked here) -

The ongoing quarrel over the role of the National Endowment for the Arts suffers, as so many quarrels do, from a lack of focus. This is sometimes the doing of the ignorant, sometimes the doing of polemical opportunists. These last would have us believe that those Americans who have been alarmed by a few excesses of the NEA in the recent past are crypto-fascists who favor a general censorship.

Mr. Anthony Lewis of The New York Times is not ignorant, and therefore must be set down as behaving opportunistically. The technique is hoary: one associates the opposing argument with unseemly people. As in, "The other side, which one might call the fascist side, favors ..." Consider, for instance, the matter of the photographs by Mr. Andres Serrano. You will remember the crucifix immersed in the urine of the artist, photographed with the caption "Piss Christ"?

Now I think it entirely candid to say that there is a community of people in America, among whom Mr. Lewis is comfortable, who are quite simply unoffended by such a photograph. For one thing, they think of Christ, if ever they do, as a distracting historical superstition responsible for all sorts of human misbehavior including wars and persecutions; and if some artist wants to express his feelings about Christ - and about Christianity, derivatively - by urinating on a crucifix and calling it art, who are we to object?

Thus Mr. Lewis begins his column - entitled "Fight the Philistines" - "A small band of religious zealots and right-wing political opportunists is trying to show the world that America is an intolerant Puritan country, contemptuous of artists."

How is that for target-bombing those who believe that something is functionally wrong with an agency that begets Piss Christs, and circulates photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe that celebrate (the exact word) homoeroticism and sadomasochism?

... Sometimes it is painful to be made to think, but at the risk of inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on Mr. Lewis, one needs to lead him, calmly, through a child's garden of syllogisms.

- Censorship, of a generic kind, is exercised every day by myriad authorities. The New York Times, which is the most authoritative newspaper in the country, exercises a benevolent censorship by, for instance, declining to publish pictures of the Mapplethorpe photos under discussion. In declining to do this, it can be denounced for exercising narrow censorship; or it can be praised for exercising good judgment.

- If the word "censorship" is appropriately used to describe a refusal to back a particular exhibit, then it is also appropriately used to describe the very act of selection. For instance: last October the NEA first pulled back from, and then reinstated, its funding of something called, Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing (an exhibition of AIDS-related paintings and photographs). When the agency decided to reverse itself and renew its backing, it did so with one qualification: it declined to supply the money to pay for the accompanying catalogue that was designed to go with the AIDS exhibit. The catalogue was an explosion of anti-Christian odium (the Catholic Church is a "house of walking swastikas"). That catalogue was "censored" by the NEA, we are free then to say.

- But in that case, censorship goes on at a feverish pace, given the discrepancy between the number of applications for NEA money and the money available. For every dollar of the $170 million spent by the NEA, one assumes that an application for two or three dollars was turned down. On what grounds? Well, maybe the peer committee didn't think the other photographer was as "good" as Mapplethorpe. Using what criteria? Well, er ... the composition wasn't as good, nor the lighting, nor the ... subect matter as interesting?

Writes Mr. Lewis: "The critics of the NEA, when they want to sound reasonable, say that after all it is only a question of making sure that Government money doesn't go for objectionable art. But that argument begs the real question: Who decides?"

But that isn't the most interesting question. The real question: Whoever does decide, and somebody must, is what issues from that decision something that critics can call censorship? Censorship, used in this way, goes on every day, in every way, in a free society - and should.

... Essentially, the difficulty lies (writes Mr. [samuel] Lipman - who is by the way a professional musician, and music critic) in that the United States doesn't have a culture policy ... Lacking a central vision, the NEA has been easily distracted, and has been hospitable to grants that lead to the kind of notoriety brought on by the exhibitions of Mapplethorpe and Serrano. These were for a long time defended on the grounds that the NEA subjected applications to "peer panel review" and that therefore the NEA was not itself responsible for its grants. "This response was so weak, and ultimately so lacking in philosophical weight, that even seasoned arts administrators - including leading voices at the NEA itself - were soon panicked into claiming that in making provocative grants the NEA was only fulfilling its proper function, since art itself was in its essence provocative. This line of argument, so far from improving matters, merely had the effect of reducing not only the NEA but art itself to being the handmaiden of anger, violence, and social upheaval."

Mr. Lipman shrewdly ties it together. Artists like Mapplethorpe and Serrano aren't, in their seizures, engaged in making art, but in making polemics. "That being so, it was inevitable that cutting-edge grants would come to be defended by the arts establishment not in terms of artistic achievement but in terms of free speech."

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I don't see what's so arresting by the "piss Christ" image itself - it's a foggy, yellow picture of a crucifix.

Well, presupposing that this is a valid way to talk about art, we might make a checklist of aesthetic principles and evaluate Piss Christ according to those principles, one at a time. I would give it passing grades for color, composition, and statement of theme — i.e., it presents a strong idea in a bold manner, but with just enough ambiguity to make it interesting.

It's the knowledge of what the image consists of, and how the guy made it, that is controversial and offensive.

Exactly. Further down the checklist, I would give it a BIG failing grade for choice of materials and thematic content.

I'm aware that talking this way makes me sound a bit like the introduction to the poetry textbook in Dead Poets Society — the one that Robin Williams instructs his students to rip out of the book. I'm just saying that I think Piss Christ upholds some aesthetic principles and not others, which is why I think it is Bad Art and not Non-Art.

Edited by mrmando

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Mando, I'm not sure we're on entirely the same page, but that was a nicely written post. :)

(To clarify, I would also all Piss Christ art ... but then I use that word promiscuously. I would also agree that it is bad art, on multiple levels.)

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Thanks!

Bad Art might be worse than Non-Art, after all. Non-art is trying to say something and failing in the attempt; bad art is successfully saying something that you shouldn't have said.

Edited by mrmando

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Bad Art might be worse than Non-Art, after all. Non-art is trying to say something and failing in the attempt; bad art is successfully saying something that you shouldn't have said.

I've not commented on this thread at all for various reasons, and I'm not sure I agree with a lot of your conclusions, but this is a terrific statement and worthy of remembrance. :)

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Now I think it entirely candid to say that there is a community of people in America, among whom Mr. Lewis is comfortable, who are quite simply unoffended by such a photograph. For one thing, they think of Christ, if ever they do, as a distracting historical superstition responsible for all sorts of human misbehavior including wars and persecutions; and if some artist wants to express his feelings about Christ - and about Christianity, derivatively - by urinating on a crucifix and calling it art, who are we to object?

If he can't have a debate without caricaturing those who don't have a problem with the image as a bunch of Christ-haters, he's not credible. Buckley was a good writer, but he certainly had some hangups with bigotry himself. As the Washington Post noted:

"in 1986 Buckley wrote, "Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals." It was a chilling and apparently intentional reference to Nazi treatment of the Jews, and it was entirely within the mainstream for public commentary on the disease the year before Wojnarowicz found out he was HIV-positive."

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If he can't have a debate without caricaturing those who don't have a problem with the image as a bunch of Christ-haters, he's not credible.

It may be a hasty generalization and an oversimplification, but a caricature it's not. Buckley's comments quite reasonably characterize a significant number of those who don't have a problem with the image. Perhaps he unfairly marginalized other non-objectors who are also not anti-Christian, but that's not quite the same as caricaturing anyone.

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Semantics aside, it's intellectually dishonest.

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Semantics aside, it's intellectually dishonest.

As you interpret him. I think his comments bear another interpretation. Here is what Buckley says:

...there is a community of people in America, among whom Mr. Lewis is comfortable, who are quite simply unoffended by such a photograph. For one thing, they think of Christ, if ever they do, as a distracting historical superstition responsible for all sorts of human misbehavior...

Now, there is a community who does think of Christ in that way, and who is unoffended by the photograph. The first sentence doesn't necessarily pick out the class of all persons unoffended by the photo; rather, it picks out "a community of people" who have this trait -- as well as the trait, and this may be important, of being comfortable to Mr. Lewis.

The first trait may be shared with other communities (some of whom may have kinder thoughts in connection with Christ); Buckley is not necessarily concerned with them. It is not clear that he means to map out binary alternatives; he seems rather to be setting the stage for a critique of Lewis's perspective, adducing the milieu of someone who pillories opponents of Piss Christ as "Philistines" and "a small band of religious zealots and right-wing political opportunists" whose vision of America is "an intolerant Puritan country, contemptuous of artists."

Now, you could argue that Mr. Lewis doesn't necessarily mean to say that all opponents of Piss Christ fit that description. But if you let Lewis off the hook that way, it seems to me you may have to let Buckley off the hook too.

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Among certain classes of Protestants it is fashionable to look down the nose at "Jesus junk" -- the kind of cheap, kitschy keychains/jewelry, etc., sold in evangelical bookstores. During the late 1980s/early 1990s, when the initial Piss Christ controversy erupted, some Protestants took the view that the plastic crucifix was another example of "Jesus junk" and that by immersing it in urine, Serrano was trying to point out the cheap tawdriness of such objects. It's only fair to point out that this interpretation, however sincere it might be, proceeds from a desacralized worldview, and completely overlooks the status of a crucifix (even a plastic one) as a sacred object. Among the individuals who saw the work this way was a respected professor of religion at a certain evangelical university in Seattle that happens to host the organization that administers A&F ... at least, I hope I may presume that the professor interpreted the work this way, because he hung a large print of it on his office door. I myself, at one time, saw this as a valid way to interpret the work until I had the chance to look at it in the context of other prints by Serrano.

But I digress. Protestants who hold this opinion of Piss Christ might be poorly informed about crucifixes, and might thus be reasoning from a false premise, but they hold the opinion because they respect Jesus, not because they hate him.

However, upon re-reading Buckley, it does seem clear to me that these Protestants aren't the group he is criticizing.

Edited by mrmando

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desacralized worldview

I feel the need to stress once again how offensive the use of this phrase is.

(I'm not saying you can't say it; I'm just saying that when you use it, it makes you sound like a big ol' bully who feels capable of making determinations about other people's worldviews without, say, investigating how their understanding of the sacred might differ from yours but no less a powerful force in their lives. If you don't have a problem with being perceived as a bully, by all means, keep it up!)

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When I asked you to articulate your view of the sacred, you declined, and referred me instead to chapter 3 of David Dark's book.

It's worth noting that Steven has provided page upon page of insight as to why a crucifix crawling with ants might be offensive, but you seem to think you're entitled to claim that "desacralized worldview" (there, I put it in quotes) is offensive without explaining why.

The term "desacralized" doesn't describe a person who thinks nothing is sacred; rather, it describes a person whose view of the sacred operates within certain limits. Most Protestants don't hold with the notion of venerating relics or other sacred objects; therefore, from a Catholic perspective, those Protestants have a "desacralized worldview." Catholics admit an additional dimension of sacredness that Protestants don't. Someone who thinks all of creation is, literally, sacred might opine that from her perspective, Catholics have a "desacralized worldview" because they think that some physical objects are sacred and others aren't — or, if you prefer, that some objects are more sacred than other objects.

If you search long and hard enough, you might find an A&F thread where Steven took me to task for having a "desacralized worldview" in a debate over relics and such. The term is not an insult; rather, it is a way of distinguishing among various opinions about the nature of sacredness and how it permeates the world (or doesn't).

Edited by mrmando

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Holy Moly: You take offense at the suggestion that your approach to this subject is reflective of desacrilized modernity. And yet, pages and pages ago, you wrote:

As someone who has had a Salvadoran cross hanging at the threshold of my tiny dorm rooms and apartments ever since I moved out of my parents' house, none of that is new to me. This gives me no clues, though, as to what logic that informs the suppression of other representations.

Which seems to me pretty strong prima facie evidence of a desacrilized worldview. The sacredness of an image gives you no clues as to what logic informs the suppression of other representations? A notion of the sacred that informs no conception of profanation, desecration, sacrilege or the unacceptability thereof? No such thing, mate.

Edited by SDG

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Buckley was a good writer, but he certainly had some hangups with bigotry himself. As the Washington Post noted:

"in 1986 Buckley wrote, "Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals." It was a chilling and apparently intentional reference to Nazi treatment of the Jews, and it was entirely within the mainstream for public commentary on the disease the year before Wojnarowicz found out he was HIV-positive."

That's Philip Kennicott you're referring to, who makes quite a number of strange and misleading claims in that essay.

Off topic,

that one line from Buckley on the proposed tattoo, if read in context along with his further writing on the subect, has absolutely nothing to do with the Nazi treatment of the Jews. Buckley was discussing the little discussed fact that a considerably large number of AIDS victims were given the disease by sharing needles or sex with other people who knew they had AIDS. He later quoted a gay rights activist who argued that [a] knowing you have AIDS, commencing to have sex or share a needle with someone else, was [c] essentially an act of murder. That tattoo suggestion was not about branding homosexuals, it was about trying to figure out how to protect them and save lives (particularly their own lives). Buckley admitted later that he took a large amount of criticism for offering that suggestion, and said that his response when criticized about it was to ask "whether it was a Gay civil right not to be infected by someone already infected?" and then "if so, how the government should effectively protect that right?" Perhaps not the most sensitive suggestion when discussing the question of how to stop people with AIDS from knowingly infecting other people (many of whom are gay), but hardly bigotry.

On topic,

Buckley's main point in the original column, is that it seems strange when an artistic institution is criticized for exhibiting the work of artists, that instead of defending the artistic value of those works, it defends the political free speech of the artists. In this case, the National Portrait Gallery and the "bunch of politicians" are being accused of censorship and trampling upon free speech.

The implication is that, instead of a political discussion (on whether eliminating an art work from a public forum is censorship), the discussion everyone should be having is whether [a] it can be classified as "art" in the first place (although refusing to classify anything at all as art these days seems to be looked upon with knitted eyebrows), and it is "good art" worthy of display and admiration, OR "bad art" of little value and worthy of objection. That is an aesthetic conversation, not a political one. Much of the discussion on this thread has been on whether Wojnarowicz's treatment of the crucifix was sacrilegious, and therefore "bad art." From what I've read, this is not the discussion most people defending Wojnarowicz's work are having.

Edited by Persiflage

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(although refusing to classify anything at all as art these days seems to be looked upon with knitted eyebrows)

;) Allow me to reassure you that dismissing any of the works in question as non-art is perfectly reasonable. The world will end the day we all agree on the meaning of "art."

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