Ants on a Crucifix

Arts, Featured, Visual Arts — By on January 19, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Christians and artists just don’t get along. Add the gay/lesbian debate to this equation, and a culture war of epic proportions results. Mix in a dose of 24/7 news cycle madness in the digital age and one wonders if ever the twain shall meet.

This unfortunate state of affairs has been best evidenced in the recent debate over David Wojnarowicz’s late 1980s video “A Fire in My Belly.” The episode tragically reinforces artists’ frustrations with the gross delay in timing between the genesis of the piece and the outcry. Much like other antiquated responses to popular culture, the conservative Protestant, Evangelical and Catholic reaction to a decades-old piece of film art seems apropos. The 1980s gay culture in which Wojnarowicz originally created his work has long since evolved, but conveniently the Church awakens from its slumber to voice concern during Christmas. Sorry Christians, your reaction is much too late – falling upon countless deafened American ears. Illustrating once again how irrelevant the religious argument is.

The surprising part of this saga is the The National Portrait Gallery’s decision to remove Wojnarowicz’s work from the “Hide/Seek” Exhibit. Its place is entirely appropriate since the exhibit’s subtitle is “Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Contextually it fits, however, its timing proved to be short sighted. An edited four minute version Wojnarowicz’s video combines layers of sexual tension laced with images of mortality. Highly disturbing, the repeated use of “unclean” provides an angst-filled viewing experience that contemplates death, sex and judgment. A single viewing should be enough to embed graphic images of human difference and desire. Whether it is art is debatable. Whether public funds should be used to exhibit it is likewise questionable.

Art and faith are distinct human expressions. Each must be clearly given freedom to manifest independently. David Wojnarowicz’s portrayal of Christ stems from a tortured existence. His lover and mentor Peter Hujar succumbed to AIDS, his own body decaying with the same disease. How could a good God allow so much pain and suffering? That’s the perennial mantra most humans invoke in the face of suffering. “A Fire in My Bellydemonstrates the angst Wojnarowicz felt just a few years prior to his own death. It does not meet my artistic vision for sure, but I understand it better when I know something about him. Too often we separate the artist from the art, which is a crucial misstep. It is easy to demonize an object when stripped from the humanity which created it. A tortured soul will produce similarly tortured art. Wojnarowicz was such a soul. A cursory glimpse at his published diaries In the Shadow of the American Dream will reveal this.

The controversy surrounding the decision has been hashed and rehashedagain and  again. That’s been thoroughly exhausted on both sides. This whole episode is a microcosm of a much larger problem that spans centuries of relational decay.

What concerns me is the way in which this issue depicts the fundamental rift between artists and Christians. There was a time where the two terms were virtually indistinguishable. Centuries of mutual mis-appreciation, misunderstanding, and miscommunication have created a chasm between both sides that make the terms practically antonyms. W. David O. Taylor is wonderful proof of the torturous state of Christian artists who have trouble identifying with either side of this contentious reality. He’s truly a third culture – admirable for sure, but lonely nonetheless. I, too, fall somewhere in the middle. It is a soul-wrenching state for sure. Difficult to find peers. Often misunderstood. Will there be reconciliation?

A few observations can be made that expose the awkwardness third culture Christians encounter. I do not have clear answers to rectify this centuries old breach in relations, but I pray these points will blossom into conversations that might attempt to bring both parties to the table.

For artists to consider:

  • Respect for classic religious images will generally prevent such outcries. This is not a full-blown prohibition, but a means to soften the biases many Christians have against the arts.
  • Holidays are not the best time to introduce controversial issues in art. Timing is essential to challenging commonly accepted religious notions.
  • Christians are evolving in their appreciation for the arts. A few progressive forces are emerging that can change the shape of Christian arts (i.e. Brian McLaren, W. David O Taylor, and International Arts Movement).

For Christians to consider:

  • Artistic souls have a tough time in the church finding avenues to express their God given abilities. Opportunities need to be extended to begin the détente and diffuse artists’ stereotypes of Christians.
  • Art should not be restricted to religious subjects only. There are many ways to communicate truth. Iconography and Scriptural renderings are not the full extent of artistic expression.
  • Art history promotes appreciation for contemporary and post-modern art, revealing religious messages that are worthy of Christian contemplation.
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