Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Stirring Letter from a Retired Bishop

As I scanned the letters to the editor in the Boston Globe this morning, I was happily surprised to come across one by the retired bishop of Ohio, the Right Reverend J. Clark Grew, who now lives in Boston.

It reads as follows:

Gay themes tend to stir wrath of some on Capitol Hill
December 21, 2010

I WRITE to thank Sebastian Smee for his excellent Dec. 16 piece “Offensive? ICA lets the public decide,’’ about the removal of a video from a gay-themed exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It is a sad occasion when art in our country’s museums, much less anywhere else, is subjected to the political and religious right’s blatantly homophobic manipulations.

I agree with Smee’s emphasis that the public should decide what is or isn’t art, but there is another article that needs to be written, and that is one about the ongoing and increasingly nasty gay-lesbian-transgender-bashing that is so prevalent with some members of Congress.

The Right Rev. J. Clark Grew, Boston

The writer is a retired bishop in the Episcopal Church.

The Globe editorial that Bishop Grew refers to responds to the decision by Boston's Institute for Contemporary Art (and several other museums around the country) to show a video installation that was removed December 1st from an exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery entitled "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." On the Smithsonian's website, the exhibit is described as "the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture," considering "such themes as the role of sexual difference in depicting modern America; how artists explored the fluidity of sexuality and gender; how major themes in modern art—especially abstraction—were influenced by social marginalization; and how art reflected society’s evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment."

The offending video was created by New York based artist David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) in 1986-87 in response to the death of his partner, Peter Hujar, from AIDS-related complications, and from his own diagnosis with the virus that would ultimately take his life at the age of 37. The Smithsonian's version of the video (now having gone viral on youtube in the wake of this debate), which Smee describes as "a four-minute, surrealistic montage of footage shot in Mexico called 'Fire in My Belly,’" includes, among a number of other images, "intermittently recurring footage of ants crawling on a small painted crucifix that lies on the ground." Smee goes on to point out, "when it comes to representations of Christ’s death, the Christian tradition is full of base and wretched imagery, as anyone who has seen Matthias Grünewald’s shudderingly graphic “Isenheim Altarpiece’’ in Colmar, France, or for that matter Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion,’’ would know."

The Smithsonian decided to remove the video after being pressured by members of Congress and the president of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue. As Jacqueline Trescott reports in the Washington Post, the significance of this "skirmish" is that it "could forecast a renewed battle over arts funding when the Republican-led House takes over in January." Hollad Collard also notes in the New York Times that in this episode, "history is repeating itself, with variations;" in 1989, Wojnarowicz won a suit against Donald Wildmon, a Methodist minister who had disseminated to members of Congress a pamphlet with selective images from Wojnarowicz's collages, targeting his partial support by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Wojnarowicz may no longer be able to defend his work, but plenty of people are stepping into the fray.

Noting the protests that have proliferated since the removal of the video, Bill Donohue has now commented in a December 17th press release, "The artist who gave us the ant-crawling video, David Wojnarowicz, died of AIDS. So did his lover, Peter Hujar. Mapplethorpe died of AIDS, too. And now those who adore them are taking to the streets on their behalf. Think I'll just watch the Giants—kickoff is at 1:00 p.m."

Reading this comment, just days after the Senate's historic vote to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, it's impossible not to be reminded how much the struggle continues. And a huge part of that struggle is making sure that "the church" or "the religious" does not get monolithically represented by such voices.

Which brings me back to the profound sense of gratitude I felt this morning when Bishop Grew's letter showed up on my front porch, like a surprise Christmas present wrapped up in a newspaper.

The story of this video skirmish may feel more like Lent than Christmas, and yet in the end to me it serves as a reminder of the messiness of Incarnation, and of the critical importance of solidarity and hope in a season of intense joy and need.

CP

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