Video of crucifix removed from Washington gallery
December 1st, 2010
02:06 PM ET

Video of crucifix removed from Washington gallery

By CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor Eric Marrapodi in Washington

The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery removed a controversial video Wednesday after drawing criticism that the piece was offensive to Christians.

A four-minute video clip by the late artist David Wojnarowicz was part of a larger exhibit titled "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," which looks at "sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture," according to gallery curators. Gender and sexuality are strong themes in the exhibition.

The clip, from Wojnarowicz's "A Fire in My Belly," included a scene showing ants crawling over a small crucifix.

The complete video of "A Fire in My Belly," is over 30 minutes long and includes masturbation and full frontal male nudity. Wojnarowicz, who was gay, died from AIDS in July of 1992.

His companion of seven years, Tom Rauffenbart, said Wedneday that while they never talked about Wojnarowicz's intent for the piece, he was "extremely disappointed they pulled this."

"I'm pretty angry about it. It doesn't surprise me, though. David was always controversial. I just wish he was alive," Rauffenbart told CNN.

Curators for the portrait gallery and media specialists from New York University's Fales Library, where the original work is housed, worked to edit down the video into a four-minute clip to include in the exhibition. While a small portion of the full frontal nudity was shown in the edited video, the sexually explicit portion was edited out.

But it was the ants on the crucifix that drew the ire of the Catholic League and politicians. "I didn't register any other objection with this exhibit, it's not my taste. But this is hate speech against Christians," William Donohue, president of the Catholic League told CNN.

Donohue said he did not personally view the exhibit or the offending video as it was presented. After being alerted to the matter by a reporter for the New York Post, he watched another edited version of "A Fire in My Belly" on YouTube, he said.

On Wednesday, CNN was able to view the version that had been pulled from the museum. Both the version on YouTube and the version shown at the museum featured several shots of a small crucifix being overrun by ants. The portion shown at the portrait gallery also showed someone sewing their lips shut, legless beggars in Mexico, silver coins falling in a dish of blood, and a single bloody eyeball on a string.

"Obviously there's a judgment call here," Donohue said. "Obviously there is a role for criticism of religion in art. But this (the crucifix scene) crossed the line."

Martin Sullivan, director of the gallery, said in a written statement the intent was not to offend Christians.

"I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious," he wrote. "In fact, the artist's intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. It was not the museum's intention to offend."

"Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" cost approximately $750,000 to put on and was done so using private donations, the Smithsonian said. The video in question appeared on a 17-inch touch-screen video kiosk with another video titled "Pink Narcissist." Attendees had to navigate the touch screen to see either video.

Over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend 22,000 people came through the exhibit. It opened in late October, and museum officials said prior to the media attention about the ants on the crucifix, they only received one complaint, regarding the sexual nature of the works.

The portrait gallery is part of the Smithsonian Institution museums, which are federally funded with taxpayer dollars.

Donohue sent a letter to the House and Senate appropriations committees asking them to "reconsider the propriety of funding the Smithsonian Institution." The House and Senate committees in part control how much money the museums receive.

"What gives the government the right to pick the pocket of the taxpayer to insult religion?" Donohue told CNN.

Donohue is not alone. There is a rising chorus of Republicans in Congress who are suggesting federal funds ought to be monitored more closely when given to the Smithsonian. the presumptive speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio; and House GOP Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia have both come out publicly with similar comments on the matter.

Rep. Dan Lungren of California is the ranking Republican on the House Administration Committee. He said in a written statement to CNN, "In light of this inappropriate use of funds, we plan to carefully review the process by which exhibits are selected by the primarily federally funded institution."

Lungren's staff said he had not seen the exhibit in person, saying the Smithsonian's vast collection makes it impossible to see everything firsthand. His staff also added that while the exhibit itself was funded privately, taxpayers were footing the bill for costs from the exhibit space to the electric bill.

Dianne Apostolos-Cappadona, professor of religious art at Georgetown University, said she disagreed with the museum's decision to remove the work. "This is a museum that receives public funding (but) an artist is supposed to have the ability to express what you're feeling and thinking and seeing. So that comes from whoever you are [as an artist]. It comes from within. It comes from the world you've been socialized in."

"When did the public become so narrowly defined? So are we only going to show (only) the work of heterosexual white males?" she asked.

Gallery director Sullivan spoke Wednesday with CNN's John King about the exhibit and the controversy.

"Art in general has always been an instrument through which society is kind of challenged to think about, 'Well, what do we truly believe in, what can we tolerate as a society?' So we feel that this exhibition is consistent with the mission that Congress gave the Portrait Gallery when it was created," Sullivan said.

He said museum officials were taken back by the criticism.

"The criticism, which was vigorous and aggressive, came almost entirely from people who had seen neither the exhibition or video, but who read certain accounts of it that got them convinced that this was intentionally a sacrilegious placement of a piece of work," Sullivan said.

"It was made in Mexico, the artist was very deeply influenced by the vivid Latin American imagery, which often has a lot of blood, a lot of violence in it. The religious element is a standard dime-store crucifix, which was set in the sand and, just as (with) decomposing bodies, there were ants crawling over it," Sullivan said.

Rauffenbart said the video and an accompanying still-photo component were created "around the time of AIDS crisis. There was no cure and people were dying all around us. Most of the images were directed toward that kind of thing."

Sullivan said the decision to pull the piece from the exhibit was difficult to make for the museum.

"The artist is dead. He died of AIDS, so we can not speak for him on what he intended. But the argument that the portrait gallery as a part of a museum complex was deliberately supporting a sacrilegious statement seemed to us a reason to say, 'OK, that was not the intent. We wish you would take a look at it.' But we would rather the largely and more important theme of the show continue to be available."

The full exhibit features works from 105 artists including Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Annie Leibowitz. At the beginning of the exhibit there is a sign that reads, "This exhibition contains mature themes." Sullivan said although the piece by Wojnarowicz was being removed, the sign will remain in place.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Art • Catholic Church • Christianity • DC • Homosexuality • United States

soundoff (129 Responses)
  1. Tremper

    Google "End Times Passover blog, Dec. 14" & read "Pretrib Rapture & Demons" for a 4-alarm earthquake!

    December 16, 2010 at 12:36 am |
  2. Ykcyc

    I am amazed that this post was not deleted like so many others, I left before. I stopped coming here because of that.

    December 2, 2010 at 12:35 pm |
    • Frogist

      @ Ykcyc: I can understand that. The filter is problematic. There are ways to get around it by editing words so that your post goes through. But that can be tedious and I can see how it would hamper someone whose posts consist of poetry.

      December 2, 2010 at 1:12 pm |
  3. Jewish or maybe Muslim symbols

    David Wojnarowicz being Jewish should have used a sacred Jewish symbol instead of a Christian one to express his so called artistic expression. Let those whose intentions are to degrade Christianity dare use Jewish & Muslim symbols and you will have the US government issues an apology to them. This is not a freedom of speech issue or artistic expression, this is a hate message. Using a crucifix in warped way is a direct attack against Christians everywhere and they know they can get away with it. Let the so called artists try and use Jewish or Muslims symbols in a derogatory manner and see what happens, maybe they can do it once; but not like they do with Christian symbols.

    December 2, 2010 at 8:35 am |
    • Frogist

      Jesus is a prophet in Islam and this depiction might just as well be offensive to some muslims as it is to christians. Surely you were not asleep through the controversy about Mohammed's image in comics and on South Park. Jewish symbols and depictions of jews are also controversially used. (Look up Walter Herrmann cartoon Star of David for one example.) But I honestly don't understand why being personally uncomfortable with a piece of art automatically means someone has to remove it from everyone's view. Religion is a huge part of our lives, why can artists never be allowed to criticize it or use its sumbols to make a point? Just because it is something you like doesn't make it immune from artistic examination. And just because it's something you don't like shouldn't make it forbidden from everyone's view.

      December 2, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
  4. usa48312

    Dear atheist and GOD mocking,

    1/ HELL exist… enclose is a HELL testimony of few whom went through Near Death Experience

    2/ Don’t go to HELL… because it is a horrible place.

    3/ JESUS love you… he died for our sins, he is risen, and present in our world… forever, and ever!

    December 2, 2010 at 7:46 am |
    • Bob

      1. Ok, let's say for the sake of argument that I agree there is a hell.
      2. Ok, I don't want to go to hell.
      3. How do you know it's Jesus that will save me and not any other faith?


      December 2, 2010 at 2:08 pm |
    • And the winner is...

      If , and I do mean if, there is an afterlife, let there be multiple places or destinations like heaven and hell so that the educated and rational beings can be separated from the loony toons.

      December 2, 2010 at 6:11 pm |
    • Bruce


      Good question. Hope you find the right answer because you would only have one chance to get it right. Hint: You can't miss hell or get to heaven with good works, pedigree or status. Now, go from there.

      December 3, 2010 at 8:15 am |

    Donohoe is more of a threat to America's freedom than any artist who chooses to express theirs.

    December 2, 2010 at 7:15 am |
  6. Ikhan789

    It is not a question if Christian's, Jews' or Muslim's feelings are being hurt. We MUST respect all religions. Jesus came to spread the message of God. So did Moses and many other prophets who came. I am glad to see that the (so called ART piece) has been removed.

    December 2, 2010 at 7:03 am |
  7. JCizzle

    I don't see why people are getting all worked up over a mythical occurance.

    December 2, 2010 at 5:02 am |
  8. Jewls

    Well, we do shorten Christmas to xmas. As for the diminutive for atheist, it can't be theist, because that is also a word in the English language. I know... so many words, but it means to have a belief. Adding the a to a word negates it.

    December 2, 2010 at 4:43 am |
  9. Jewls

    The hate and fear mongering comes from Christians with their one god that allows no others. Where is the compassion and love that Christians are supposed to show? Where is the tenderness for the suffering that the artist went through, for the mate he left behind? Their symbols are more important to them than people. I wish that their symbols would disappear, except in the history books when we study the hate and intolerance that used to be.

    December 2, 2010 at 3:56 am |
  10. autopoet

    see how jesus is looking at the ant? why does he fear the ant? is it the ant-ichrist?

    nuk nyuk nyuk

    December 2, 2010 at 3:50 am |
    • Jewls

      Oh that's very good! *cheers*

      December 2, 2010 at 3:57 am |
  11. Daniel

    Art, in this instance, as an expression of the human experience and the experience of this particular individual should never be censored. It is in a museum to be shared and taken in however the viewer might take it. Every one has their horrors to share and it is not surprising that someone, especially in early glbtq culture would have experienced some effect (negative or positive) from christianity and feel inclined to reflect that within their art accordingly.

    I am disgusted that the Smithsonian would pull a piece of art of their walls due to fear from ignorant accusations from people who, for the most part, haven't even viewed the art at all, let alone in its entirety, nor learned anything about the artist themselves. Clearly, the future of art that isn't just for the sake of crowd-pleasing, will have to find a different venue outside of high-art big time museums.

    December 2, 2010 at 3:23 am |
    • Frogist

      @Daniel: I can't say I'm disgusted at the Smithsonian's actions. But I am disappointed. And somewhat anxious that artists'contributions can be treated with so little consideration.

      December 3, 2010 at 6:14 pm |
  12. Jusayin

    my thoughts exactly!

    December 2, 2010 at 2:05 am |
  13. double standard

    Go ahead and display this art.

    But also display art that is offensive to gays, athiests, women, jews, etc..

    December 2, 2010 at 1:59 am |
    • Yar

      This is the most sensible thing which has been written on this page.

      December 2, 2010 at 3:25 am |
    • Jewls

      That is the point of art. When I go to the museum, I see lots of things, lots of art that is strange and from a point of view that is not mine. That's why it's art, among other things.

      December 2, 2010 at 3:59 am |
    • Jesse Helms was stupid git

      Please tell me you do not breed. You are incredibly stupid.

      December 2, 2010 at 9:32 am |
    • Marty

      Offensive things are displayed to those groups daily. It's called network television.

      December 2, 2010 at 11:21 am |
    • Frogist

      @double standard: There is already art that is "offensive" to all of those you mention in museums worldwide. It's as Jewls said. Art can be controversial and still good which is a fact lost on the Catholic League's president and others of his ilk.

      December 2, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  14. Jusayin

    I marvel at all the rants about "freedom of speech" if an artist decided to do a display that was offensive to war veterans, or some exhibit showing children in a provocative manner, or women who are victims of domestic abuse displayed in a comical manner (I could go on forever with all the groups that can be offended) does the whole freedom of speech argument hold up or should religious groups be the only one's to lighten up?

    jus sayin 🙂

    December 2, 2010 at 1:58 am |
  15. barley

    Wasn't there a parable that praised ants? I can understand why most people would respond to ants as "dirty" and see this as a profanity. That said, It seems to me that Donohue's statements indicate his "fuss" is a reaction to extremist Muslim sensitivity. It's like he's claiming, "We're sensitive about our God too!" I almost think the curators felt they didn't have the option to hold the line on this because of the ridiculous idiotic flap about the "Mosque" at "Groundzero". It really feels to me like there's a rising tide of protective cultural and religious rhetoric on the part of our domestic fanatics. The preacher who wanted to burn the Quran would be an example of that. Why would he feel that burning the Quran was a part of his flocks salvation and relationship with Jesus? That doesn't compute. I think that ignorant religious zealots in our own country are playing right into the terrorists hands when they begin to buy into a Christians vs. Islam mindset. That's exactly the "new enemy" that those in power might wish for. Communism is on the wane, where's the next boogeyman? It's Islam? No way. That's going right back down the dark wasteful path of the cold war years, when so much money and infrastructure are devoted to "war" in one form or another. What about resources to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, free those in prison, those corporeal acts of mercy that Jesus asked of us? Why don't people in this country really read and understand what Jesus was about? Jesus... what would he really think? The way I read it, he'd be disappointed but would love us anyways. So that's how I try to handle the assaninity, but it's really hard not to get angry.

    December 2, 2010 at 1:49 am |
    • Andrew

      Honestly I have no problem burning either book... as long as they're personally owned. I have a problem if bibles or qurans are stolen out of libraries or mosques or churches to be burned, but if someone wants to burn their own personal copy of a book, and wants to encourage others to do so, I have to sit and wonder why anyone would care. I love Siddhartha, brilliant novel, but I won't cry outrage if people burn it. I won't cry outrage if people decide to burn Crime and Punishment... it's their own money to blow on their own books, why is it such a big deal?

      December 2, 2010 at 1:55 am |
    • Frogist

      @Andrew: While I agree that if it's your personal copy, you can do with it as you wish. I disagree with book-burning done as Jones threatened to do. He did it to specifically offend another group of people and tell them they are lesser humans. He was saying, "Your divine ideas are lesser than mine because I am a white, western Christian and anything other than that is worth destruction." And by recruiting others to do the same he is inciting action against those who are different. I'm not saying he didn't have the right. But as a individual in the public eye, both he and I have to consider whether he is making a point for people to just be introspective about, or whether he is calling on others to take actions that cause offense for his bias' sake. He was doing the latter, while "Fire in the Belly" artist was doing the former IMO anyway.

      December 2, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
    • Andrew

      That just makes Jones an @ss. A stupid @ss who apparently likes wasting money burning books, but it's still his own money. I see little reason to cry outrage when someone does something stupid, "your beliefs suck", well muslims say the same things about christians, and everyone apparently says that about atheists... the problem comes with people asserting that others must treat their holy book as valuable. Even if all jones did was trying to insult mulsims, the real problem is that muslims take offense in the first place. As though people are expected to respect their holy text.

      Jones is probably a hypocrite as well, he'd probably complain if someone burned their own copy of the bible. I don't care about that, I care about this sentiment that "my book must be respected" even if it's a privately owned copy.

      December 2, 2010 at 7:27 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Andrew: Yes, it does make him an ass. That's kinda my point. It's not ok to be an ass. And when someone is being an ass unnecessarily to an entire group of people I think we consider it an act of prejudice, bias, or even a hate crime should things get that far. But small ass or big one, he should be criticized for being one.

      Personally, I do think when dealing with holy books, some respect needs to be afforded. Muslim, Christian or otherwise. Much like showing respect for property that has significant meaning to another person – because it's not just a book, it's a symbol of something that people hold dear. I also think there are relevant and good parts of holy books. Maybe if I didn't think that, I'd be on the other side of this issue.

      I do agree that he is a hypocrite. He wants people to respect his religion while putting sown someone else's.

      December 3, 2010 at 6:11 pm |
  16. David

    Good old "art". Masturbation, nudity, random nonsensical images, pointless and potentially offensive religious material. What exactly has this kind of "art" done for society lately? I wonder if such "artists" think they do anything constructive for society. What a waste of time and talent.
    And spokesmen for incidents like this always end up saying "oh, that was not our intent". Heh, oh ok, you're right, ants crawling on a crucifix just represents the "suffering of an AIDS victim"...along with an eyeball on a string and a coin in a dish of blood. Gotcha. *super facepalm*

    December 2, 2010 at 1:43 am |
    • Andrew

      This kind of "art" sparks debate, controversy, and questions about our values. It sparks people like me to stand up and say "why CAN'T art have those things? What makes those things so particularly bad in a piece of art?"

      The fact that we can have a discussion like that is part of what makes it a very relevant piece of artwork in the same sense that Urinal was a piece of art.

      December 2, 2010 at 1:57 am |
    • Patrick

      " Masturbation, nudity, random nonsensical images, pointless and potentially offensive religious material. What exactly has this kind of "art" done for society lately?"

      I'd like to ask what religion has done for society in its entire history except bring suffering and death?

      The Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition, "Witch" Burnings... the world is flat... bacteria don't exist.... the moon is made of cheese.

      Have the Ten Commandments been proven to stop anyone from taking a gun and killing people? Have they stopped adultery? Have they stopped greed?


      December 4, 2010 at 10:58 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.