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David Wojnarowicz


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#1 Holy Moly!

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Posted 28 December 2010 - 07:21 PM

As you may have heard, a video by the artist David Wojnarowicz has been removed from the National Portrait Gallery, after a bunch of politicians decided it was "anti-Christian" (without watching it first.) You can view that video at

Personally I agree with Christopher Knight of the LA Times.

The four-minute video excerpt at the National Portrait Gallery, part of the large exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” includes four brief shots of ants crawling over a small crucifix, which has what appears to be actual blood flowing from the wound in Christ’s side. These images, which last less than 15 seconds, are what some claim to be anti-Christian.

Objectively speaking, an artist bent on making an anti-Christian diatribe would not spend just 15 seconds of a 13-minute video making it. Those images instead serve another function: To rebuke the same self-righteous moralism of those who are attacking the Smithsonian now.


Ants and bugs are an age-old artistic symbol that laments the frailty of human beings and earthly existence. As Ecclesiastes puts it: Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas -- “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” Ant-covered flora, bodies and animals turn up in everything from still life paintings in the largely Protestant 17th-century Netherlands to the silent Surrealist film, “An Andalusian Dog” (1929) by the Spanish director Luis Bunuel and artist Salvador Dali, a conservative Catholic.



In the Wojnarowicz video, the vanitas theme plays out on a crucifix not as a religious slur, but as a lament for earthly failures among those who should know better at a time of epic tragedy. Small wonder that some who failed then take offense at being reminded of it now.



I am reminded as well of Jesus in Scorcese's Last Temptation of Christ.

When I see an ant, when I look at his shiny black eye, you know what I see? I see the face of God.



#2 mrmando

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Posted 28 December 2010 - 10:27 PM

Ant-covered flora, bodies and animals turn up in everything from still life paintings in the largely Protestant 17th-century Netherlands to the silent Surrealist film, “An Andalusian Dog” (1929) by the Spanish director Luis Bunuel and artist Salvador Dali, a conservative Catholic.

There are ants in The Persistence of Memory too...

Dalí reportedly became increasingly interested in Catholicism following WWII, but it's hard to say exactly in what sense he was "conservative" about it. At any rate, I doubt that the Dalí of 1929 would have seen himself as, or been described by anyone else as, a "conservative Catholic." From the Wikipedia entry on Dalí:

Meanwhile [in 1929], Dalí's relationship with his father was close to rupture. Don Salvador Dalí y Cusi strongly disapproved of his son's romance with Gala, and saw his connection to the Surrealists as a bad influence on his morals. The last straw was when Don Salvador read in a Barcelona newspaper that his son had recently exhibited in Paris a drawing of the "Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ", with a provocative inscription: "Sometimes, I spit for fun on my mother's portrait."

Dalí's perceived offenses against the Church resulted in his being kicked out of his father's household at the end of 1929. Knight may need to explain how this fits in with his description of the artist as a conservative Catholic.

Knight is also being disingenuous with the "15 seconds of a 13-minute video" claim ... there are several other Christian images in the video, including repeated shots of an actor portraying Jesus with a crown of thorns (sometimes with one eye closed, sometimes with both) and images of a statue of St. Lucia (with both her eyes torn out, naturally). Whether this amounts to an "anti-Christian diatribe" is open to debate, but it's clearly meant to be a strong critique of the Church.

Wojnarowicz might well have Andres Serrano known he would Chris Ofili come in for some criticism here.

Then, of course, there's the question of whether juvenile jingoism such as Wojnarowicz's video is of sufficient quality to deserve a showing in the National Portrait Gallery, shots of ants on a crucifix or no. And yes, I did watch it.

Edited by mrmando, 28 December 2010 - 11:46 PM.


#3 Holy Moly!

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Posted 28 December 2010 - 11:51 PM

Knight is also being disingenuous with the "15 seconds of a 13-minute video" claim ... there are many other Christian images in the video, including repeated shots of an actor portraying Jesus with a crown of thorns (sometimes with one eye closed, sometimes with both) and images of a statue of St. Lucia (with both her eyes torn out, naturally). Whether this amounts to an "anti-Christian diatribe" is open to debate, but it's clearly meant to be a strong critique of the Church.


There is a lot of religious imagery, but the ants are the only thing that the catholic league complained about. The jesus figure wasn't an actor, but a man participating in a religious ceremony in mexico. (True, the audio added posthumously puts it more into a politicized and less ambiguous context. Personally, i find the image of the bread being stitched back together truly beautiful and heartbreaking.)

Wojnarowicz might well have Andres Serrano known he would Chris Ofili come in for some criticism here.


Well, no. Wojnarowicz made this work before Serrano's exhibition in 1989 caused so much outcry. And by the time Chris Ofili's Madonna was a flashpoint, Wojnarowicz was dead for seven years.

Then, of course, there's the question of whether juvenile jingoism such as Wojnarowicz's video is of sufficient quality to deserve a place in the National Portrait Gallery, shots of ants on a crucifix or no. And yes, I did watch it.



Well if they're going to have Norman Rockwell....


Another take.


#4 mrmando

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Posted 29 December 2010 - 12:14 AM

There is a lot of religious imagery, but the ants are the only thing that the catholic league complained about.

Which is not to say that they are the only thing worth complaining about. Clearly Mr. Donohue's comments about the video aren't among his most well-reasoned arguments ... but Knight's claim that the video is not an anti-Christian diatribe because the ant footage amounts to only 15 seconds -- that's an example of equally poor reasoning.

Personally, i find the image of the bread being stitched back together truly beautiful and heartbreaking.)

Maybe, if it weren't juxtaposed with sequences of a guy stitching his mouth shut. I think it tries to be revolutionary, and succeeds only in being revolting.

Well, no. Wojnarowicz made this work before Serrano's exhibition in 1989 caused so much outcry. And by the time Chris Ofili's Madonna was a flashpoint, Wojnarowicz was dead for seven years.

OK, then the exhibit's curators should have known there might be problems. NPR interviewed one of the curators (I don't remember whether it was Katz or Sullivan) and someone representing the Catholic League's side of the argument (forget who, but I don't think it was Donohue). Oddly enough, it was the curator who became completely unhinged and irrational during the interview.

Well if they're going to have Norman Rockwell....

At least Rockwell painted portraits. I'm not sure in what sense the Wojnarowicz video qualifies as portraiture. The same holds true for some of the other works in the exhibit, including the Georgia O'Keeffe painting.

Edited by mrmando, 29 December 2010 - 02:05 AM.


#5 Holy Moly!

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Posted 29 December 2010 - 11:38 AM

Maybe, if it weren't juxtaposed with sequences of a guy stitching his mouth shut. I think it tries to be revolutionary, and succeeds only in being revolting.


This is sort of what i meant when I said we need a Why Ugly Matters thread. I don't think he's trying to be revolutionary. I think he's trying to bear witness. Revulsion is a correct reaction.

...and that's not "a guy", that's the artist. The work is a self-portrait, of sorts.




#6 mrmando

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Posted 01 January 2011 - 04:52 PM

...and that's not "a guy", that's the artist. The work is a self-portrait, of sorts.

Thanks for the info! Then at least it does make sense to include the video in a portrait exhibit. Still wondering about the O'Keeffe painting, though.

So, do you agree with Knight that the religious imagery is meant as a criticism of the Church, or with Plate's kinder, gentler assessment: that these are merely images of suffering and decay assembled into a memento mori?

Edited by mrmando, 01 January 2011 - 05:30 PM.


#7 SDG

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Posted 01 January 2011 - 05:16 PM

Personally I agree with Christopher Knight of the LA Times.

Objectively speaking, an artist bent on making an anti-Christian diatribe would not spend just 15 seconds of a 13-minute video making it.

Rank sophistry. Unless the artist is "bent on making an anti-Christian diatribe," there can't possibly be anything anti-Christian about it. False dichotomy much?

Those images instead serve another function: To rebuke the same self-righteous moralism of those who are attacking the Smithsonian now.

It's still a profanation and offensive to Christians, particularly Catholics. A crucifix is a holy image, a sacred symbol, an object of reverence. It means what it means: Christ crucified. A Catholic who saw a crucifix on the ground covered in ants would immediately scoop it up in dismay and brush them off; he might even kiss it and/or say a prayer by way of reparation for the inadvertent profanation. To deliberately subject a crucifix to such treatment in order to film it for others to see, all to make some statement about something other than Christ crucified, is in effect a double profanation.

Wojnarowicz might well have Andres Serrano known he would Chris Ofili come in for some criticism here.

Then, of course, there's the question of whether juvenile jingoism such as Wojnarowicz's video is of sufficient quality to deserve a showing in the National Portrait Gallery, shots of ants on a crucifix or no. And yes, I did watch it.

What Mando said. Every word.

Personally, i find the image of the bread being stitched back together truly beautiful and heartbreaking.

In the light of all the Christ imagery, it struck me as a reversal of the (Eucharistic) breaking of the bread. Which, again, is all kinds of problematic. What God has broken, let no one attempt to rejoin.

Edited by SDG, 01 January 2011 - 05:20 PM.


#8 Holy Moly!

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Posted 01 January 2011 - 06:34 PM

So, do you agree with Knight that the religious imagery is meant as a criticism of the Church, or with Plate's kinder, gentler assessment: that these are merely images of suffering and decay assembled into a memento mori?


Actually, watching the original video again, I think Holland Cotter's take is the best. There is anger and grief at the cruelty and indifference of the world. But this is no polemic.

Edited by Holy Moly!, 01 January 2011 - 06:51 PM.


#9 Holy Moly!

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Posted 01 January 2011 - 06:50 PM

Unless the artist is "bent on making an anti-Christian diatribe," there can't possibly be anything anti-Christian about it. False dichotomy much?



Those who sought its removal called it "hate speech" and so that is the claim Knight is evaluating. Is this work an expression of hate and bigotry? Or is it an expression of grief, despair, and anger at indifference to suffering?



When Wojnarovicz made this work, and others like this famous image: Posted Image
(later made popular when used by the band U2) American leaders were turning a blind eye as the AIDS crisis worsened.

Jerry Falwell said "AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.". Reagan's communications director Pat Buchanan argued that AIDS is "nature's revenge on gay men." Scientists and researchers and health educators begged for more funding. Reagan was silent. He would not even say the word AIDS publicly until 1987. By that time the disease had spread to 113 countries. Today some 60 million have been infected. What might have been the case had the response been one of compassion instead of condemnation or silence?


Personally, i find the image of the bread being stitched back together truly beautiful and heartbreaking.

In the light of all the Christ imagery, it struck me as a reversal of the (Eucharistic) breaking of the bread. Which, again, is all kinds of problematic. What God has broken, let no one attempt to rejoin.


It is certainly meant as a reversal of the Eucharist, making exactly the point you name: Undoing the breaking of bread is undoing the extension of God's grace. It's cutting people off from compassion and communion. Yes, the artist is poetically depicting something ugly---a failure to live up to Christ's example of compassion and concern for the downtrodden.





Edited by Holy Moly!, 01 January 2011 - 07:27 PM.


#10 SDG

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Posted 01 January 2011 - 08:16 PM

Those who sought its removal called it "hate speech" and so that is the claim Knight is evaluating.

It doesn't seem to be the claim he is evaluating. The word "hate" does not appear in his article. The word "anti-Christian" does, however.

Jerry Falwell said "AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.". Reagan's communications director Pat Buchanan argued that AIDS is "nature's revenge on gay men." Scientists and researchers and health educators begged for more funding. Reagan was silent. He would not even say the word AIDS publicly until 1987. By that time the disease had spread to 113 countries. Today some 60 million have been infected. What might have been the case had the response been one of compassion instead of condemnation or silence?

The crucifix does not belong to Jerry Falwell, Pat Buchanan, or Ronald Reagan. On the contrary, none of those gentlemen is associated with a form of faith particularly associated with the crucifix. The crucifix belongs to the Catholic faith and all who claim it. It belongs to Mother Teresa. It belongs to me. Did Wojnarowicz mean to poke us all in the eye?

It is certainly meant as a reversal of the Eucharist, making exactly the point you name: Undoing the breaking of bread is undoing the extension of God's grace. It's cutting people off from compassion and communion. Yes, the artist is poetically depicting something ugly---a failure to live up to Christ's example of compassion and concern for the downtrodden.

Strange that Wojnarowicz went after iconography and sacrament if his target was the Evangelical/nonsectarian public figures you suggest.

#11 Holy Moly!

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Posted 01 January 2011 - 09:23 PM

The crucifix does not belong to Jerry Falwell, Pat Buchanan, or Ronald Reagan. On the contrary, none of those gentlemen is associated with a form of faith particularly associated with the crucifix. The crucifix belongs to the Catholic faith and all who claim it. It belongs to Mother Teresa. It belongs to me. Did Wojnarowicz mean to poke us all in the eye?
....
Strange that Wojnarowicz went after iconography and sacrament if his target was the Evangelical/nonsectarian public figures you suggest.



To whatever extent he had a "target", it wasn't limited to evangelicals--also included Cardinal O Connell, William F Buckley, etc. And his use of religious imagery is not strange at all when you understand that Wojnarowicz was himself the product of a Catholic boyhood. As in the rest of his work, he used imagery that resonated with him personally. Additionally, his source footage was from his trip to Mexico making work that was informed by images of that region so any references to religiosity would have to be catholic to fit the overarching aesthetic. But again his use of these symbols is sympathetic even as it is difficult. My invocation of Falwell, Buchanan, and Reagan is intended to inform interpretation of the piece as a whole, and the context which it responded to. He is positioning the eucharist against the climate of silence and indifference.

Truly this does remind me of the Ofili scandal in that it seems that his critics are incapable of interpreting art on anything but the most one-dimensional, literal levels, as if use of religious imagery shuts down our ability to identify ambiguities, as if as soon as there's a crucifix or a Mary in the art, artists must refrain from poetry or and revert only to devotional images. How low must one's estimation of contemporary artists be to think they're not capable of more than sloganeering, as if this complicated work was nothing more than an attempt to draw a hitler mustache on the baby jesus or something.

Edited by Holy Moly!, 01 January 2011 - 09:45 PM.


#12 SDG

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Posted 01 January 2011 - 09:59 PM

Truly this does remind me of the Ofili scandal in that it seems that his critics are incapable of interpreting art on anything but the most one-dimensional, literal levels, as if use of religious imagery shuts down our ability to identify ambiguities, as if as soon as there's a crucifix or a Mary in the art, artists must refrain from poetry or and revert only to devotional images. How low must one's estimation of contemporary artists be to think they're not capable of more than sloganeering, as if this complicated work was nothing more than an attempt to draw a hitler mustache on the baby jesus or something.

That's a really good analogy, actually. But it doesn't matter. My objections to the profanation of a crucifix have nothing to do with Wojnarowicz's artistic subtlety or (rather obvious) lack thereof. The crucifix is not his. He had no right. If you don't get the concept of the sacred, I understand. Lots of people don't today.

#13 Holy Moly!

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Posted 01 January 2011 - 10:08 PM

The crucifix is not his. He had no right.


Can you explain what makes you, or Bill Donahue, or whoever, the arbiter of who a symbol belongs to? Does Wojnarowicz not have a right to reflect upon the symbols of his childhood faith?





#14 SDG

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Posted 01 January 2011 - 10:46 PM

Can you explain what makes you, or Bill Donahue, or whoever, the arbiter of who a symbol belongs to? Does Wojnarowicz not have a right to reflect upon the symbols of his childhood faith?

Neither I nor Bill Donohue is not the arbiter. Sacred symbols belong to the whole tradition they embody and represent.

An analogy from outside religion: Why did Chicago outfielder Rick Monday snatch an American flag away from a couple of would-be flag burners at Dodger Stadium 35 years ago this year? Why did the away crowd give him a standing ovation and break into "God Bless America"? Why has he been rewarded with plaques and medals?

Why this celebration of an act of interference with what the Supreme Court has since declared is legally protected free speech? For that matter, an act of theft? (Monday has the flag to this day.)

As a bit of colored fabric, the flag was presumably the private property of the two demonstrators. But as a symbol the flag belongs to all Americans. Joe Monday is not the arbiter, nor is Ronald Reagan, or Pat Buchanan, or anyone else. That's the way sacred symbols work.

#15 Holy Moly!

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Posted 01 January 2011 - 11:01 PM

Frankly, that's not the way sacred symbols work; that's the way ur-fascism works.

Furthermore, to put sacred symbols in a category that forbids all creative treatment that seeks to communicate anything other than simple reverence not only strikes me as a kind of idolatry--particularly when it's a flag--but robs these symbols of their moral power to really challenge us, or their ability to inspire anything other than a bland deference to their symbolic authority.

Of course, that you would compare this video work to burning a flag--a purely negative, one-dimensional shallow gesture that communicates very little--is telling. But maybe Donahue will go after Jasper Johns next. Posted Image

Edited by Holy Moly!, 01 January 2011 - 11:06 PM.


#16 SDG

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Posted 01 January 2011 - 11:07 PM

More false dichotomies. Either creative treatments of sacred symbols are prohibited from communicating anything other than simple reverence, or else everything is permissible and no one is allowed to find anything objectionable. Also, a stylized presentation of a symbol (Johns's flag) must be the moral equivalent of profaning a symbol (crucifix on the ground covered with ants). No one talks like this except the citizen of desacrilized modernity for whom the whole concept of sacred symbols is an archaism. I understand if my point of view is an archaism to you.

P.S. It does make me sad to think of anyone slurring Monday's patriotism as "ur-fascism." That's just wrong. But, again, that's the reasonable conclusion from a desacrilized worldview.

P.P.S. Was 23-year-old Jacob "Dude, you have no Quran!" Isom's exercise in Quran-snatching from a would-be Quran-burner in Texas last year also an act of ur-fascism? Just wondering.

Edited by SDG, 01 January 2011 - 11:16 PM.


#17 Holy Moly!

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Posted 01 January 2011 - 11:34 PM

I'm sorry you feel that my difference in opinion about where the line between symbolic interpretation and desecration lies leads you to draw the conclusion that i have a "desacralized" worldview. But I'm still hung up on this arbiter issue. You say "it's not his. he had no right."

Do i correctly understand you, then, to mean that no one has a right? That the proper use of sacred symbols is in fact governed by "all americans"--by a sort of common will?

Edited by Holy Moly!, 01 January 2011 - 11:41 PM.


#18 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 02 January 2011 - 12:23 AM

SDG wrote:
: More false dichotomies. Either creative treatments of sacred symbols are prohibited from communicating anything other than simple reverence, or else everything is permissible and no one is allowed to find anything objectionable.

Well, of course, people can find things objectionable. The question is whether they must respond in objectionable ways, e.g. through theft or censorship.

: P.P.S. Was 23-year-old Jacob "Dude, you have no Quran!" Isom's exercise in Quran-snatching from a would-be Quran-burner in Texas last year also an act of ur-fascism? Just wondering.

I was wondering how long it would take for that to come up here. Yes, Isom's actions were objectionable, they were theft, they were censorship, etc. Now, a plausible case could perhaps be made that they were the lesser of evils. But evil they were, and we dare not pretend otherwise.

#19 Holy Moly!

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Posted 02 January 2011 - 06:09 PM

Do i correctly understand you, then, to mean that no one has a right? That the proper use of sacred symbols is in fact governed by "all americans"--by a sort of common will?


The reason I'm interested in this question:

Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say.In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view -- one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.








#20 mrmando

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Posted 03 January 2011 - 01:53 AM

Truly this does remind me of the Ofili scandal in that it seems that his critics are incapable of interpreting art on anything but the most one-dimensional, literal levels, as if use of religious imagery shuts down our ability to identify ambiguities, as if as soon as there's a crucifix or a Mary in the art, artists must refrain from poetry or and revert only to devotional images.

So cutting pictures of vaginas out of porn magazines and gluing them around an image of Mary is "poetry"?

If you listened to news reports about the Ofili piece, you'd think all the controversy was about elephant poop. The news media never mentioned the vaginas, AFAIK. And if you listened to the news reports about the Wojnarowicz piece, you'd think all the controversy was about the ants. The news media never mentioned the images of the guy getting ready to jerk off, AFAIK. Maybe it's the sound-bite nature of these discussions as filtered through the media that makes them seem one-dimensional.

...

In Rick Monday's defense: The protesters had no right to enter the field of play to burn the flag. They were trespassing, and they were doing something with potential to damage the outfield grass. Monday is more justified in taking the flag than Isom was in taking the Quran.

...

Do i correctly understand you, then, to mean that no one has a right? That the proper use of sacred symbols is in fact governed by "all americans"--by a sort of common will?

I can't speak for Steven, but obviously the proper use of the crucifix is not governed by "all Americans," since not all Americans regard the crucifix as sacred.

The same goes for the flag.

The proper use of sacred symbols is governed by those to whom they are sacred.

If you don't think a crucifix, or a flag, or a Quran, is sacred ... then the concept of "proper use" means little or nothing to you. If it's not sacred, then it's just a thing, and you're in no position to determine what is proper or improper use. In that case, your best course as a matter of civility would be to listen to people who believe it is sacred ... unless you intend, deliberately, to give offense to those people.

But what goes around comes around. How would Wojnarowicz feel if I made a video of myself wiping my ass with the AIDS quilt?

Edited by mrmando, 03 January 2011 - 02:47 AM.