Dear Congressman Eric Cantor,
As one of your Virginia constituents, I feel it my responsibility to write you regarding your comments related to an image in the privately funded art exhibition called “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. At a kiosk in the show, one could voluntarily call up a brief film clip from a 1987 video called “A Fire in My Belly” by David Wojnarowicz, made while he was suffering with AIDS in the 1980s. In 1992 Wojnarowicz died of AIDS complications at age 37.
Apparently you, incoming House Speaker John Boehner, and some members of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, believed an 11-second segment of that video clip displaying a crucifix on the earth with ants walking on it was sacrilegious. You have been quoted as saying the following:
“This is an outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season. When a museum receives taxpayer money, the taxpayers have a right to expect that the museum will uphold common standards of decency. The museum should pull the exhibit and be prepared for serious questions come budget time.”
I beg to differ with you about your interpretation of the timing of the exhibit, which was launched as Dr. Everett Koop reminded America of growing complacency regarding the HIV epidemic. I also beg to differ with your negative interpretation of the 11 seconds showing ants on a crucifix. But perhaps my most serious concern is whether this attack on the Smithsonian is a forewarning of things to come as you settle in as majority leader in the House of Representatives.
To warn a major U.S. institution with a wonderful history that an image in a privately funded show must be removed, and that you will put the life of that institution in jeopardy by threatening its funding, appears to me to be a gross misuse of your new power, and it certainly worries me as one of your constituents. Further, do I detect a basic dishonesty when you connect your outrage to “use of taxpayer money?” My guess is that caring for the art and traditions of our country, as the Smithsonian has done all these years, and its careful mix of private shows, bring far more tourists and funds than such shows cost in staff and space. Are you simply using what you felt was a fortuitous moment touching an ultraconservative nerve to show you are the taxpayer's guardian?
As to the image that was outrageous to you and offended some others, I write as one who has taught Bible courses at one of our universities for almost 40 years, who's written three books on religion and art, has participated in Richmond art shows, and has earned a divinity degree. I have viewed the video clip over and over, and am more impressed of its depth and sensitivity each time I see that crucifix on the earth, tiny creatures climbing over it and its image of a bloody, suffering Christ. For me it comes together as a reminder of the HIV and AIDS crisis, the suffering that often has had to be endured in a context of public denial and scorn, and the realization that all suffering bodies are related to the earth and all that lives and moves on it.
Many new ways of seeing and experiencing are opened by the dying artist, and the work does what all good art does: causes us to think and feel more deeply. Let's hope this leads us to serve more honestly and universally in a world with much misunderstanding and suffering.
The threat made to the Smithsonian will not go away, nor will the word “outrageous” or the demand that a work of art be removed from a kiosk where some might have the courage to view a disturbing image. The prophet Amos had God reject ceremony and ritual events and objects that did not advance justice. That a crucifix should serve the art of a sufferer by resting with creatures on the earth would, I believe, suit Amos well, the suffering servant of Isaiah well, and a whipped and crucified Galilean well.
Professor of religious studies, School of World Studies,
Virginia Commonwealth University
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