When a David Wojnarowicz video was removed from the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek, an exhibition in November 2010 devoted to homosexual identity, censorship based on charges of sacrilege was back in the news. Wojnarowicz’s 1987 A Fire in My Belly includes an 11-second clip of ants swarming over a crucifix and was inspired by the artist’s rage over the indifference displayed by religious and political establishments toward the AIDS crisis.
For many who lived through the culture wars of the early 1990s, the controversy seemed a weirdly unreconstructed replay. But in fact in the years since Congress, the religious right, and the art world sparred over Mapplethorpe and Serrano (and Wojnarowicz), the larger world has changed a great deal. New factors complicate the always uneasy relationship between art and religion. The events of 9/11, the “clash of civilizations,” the “War on Terror,” the rise of the Internet, and the demise of the Soviet Union all play, in different ways, into an increasing sensitivity to symbols of religion and the way they are presented and disseminated.
One could point to any number of flashpoints—uproars in France over the prohibition of the public wearing of the Muslim veil; the murderous aftermath of the Danish cartoons satirizing the prophet Mohammad; the banning of minarets in Switzerland; recent desecrations of Jewish cemeteries by swastikas in Israel, Latvia, London, and Chicago; flaps over public displays of Nativity scenes and the Ten Commandments throughout the United States; the closing of art shows containing works that satirize Christianity in Russia and Poland. This heightened sensitivity is not simply about religion, and is in fact, as often as not, a surrogate for other issues—economic imbalance, geopolitical shifts of power, demands by minority groups for more participation or outright independence.
The art world, as one of society’s repositories of image culture (others include the media and entertainment), often finds itself embroiled in religion-related controversies. Other recent incidents in the United States include last October’s uproar over the display in a Colorado museum of Enrique Chagoya’s 2003 The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals, a multipanel lithograph that includes an image of Jesus receiving oral sex. The artist describes the work as a commentary on the corruption of the spiritual by religious institutions.
One could also cite the flap over Richard Kamler’s 2009 right around the corner, a work meant to celebrate the religious diversity of New York’s Lower East Side through interwoven pages of the Qur’an and the Torah. Instead it was seen as a desecration of sacred books.
Such controversies raise questions with important implications: Is it hate speech to cover a crucifix with ants? Is it a civil-rights violation to alter someone else’s religious symbols? Can we separate critique of religious institutions from critiques of religious beliefs? Who owns these symbols and who gets to decide how they are used?