Of ants and arks

Conservative activists and politicians are outraged about an 11-second clip in a 4-minute video that appeared in a privately funded art exhibit held in the Smithsonian. But they are silent when the Governor of Kentucky extends state tax relief to a $150 million dollar theme park that says that all the science you need to know is found in Genesis.

Cathy Lynn Grossman at USA Today reports on the recent removal of the video, which includes several seconds of imagery intended to parallel the suffering of Christ and the suffering of an artist dying of AIDS, from a privately-funded exhibit at the publicly- funded Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

But David Wojnarowicz’s video, Fire In My Belly, has not gone quietly. Art critics, social critics and media critics are all over this, many heaving bricks at Bill Donohue, the voice of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which called the video “hate speech” because of a brief portion of the 30-minute work showing ants crawling on a crucifix.

It was part of a critically acclaimed exhibit that the Gallery says in a press release shows “how sexual orientation and gender identity has been portrayed in American art through history.”

James Salt at Catholics United (a social justice Catholic group that often tangles with Donohue) sees it as a crass fundraising scare tactic by Donohue. Salt called it a “manufactured controversy” in the culture wars.

If Bill Donohue were truly interested in following Jesus, he’d drop this culture-war shtick and do something more productive for those less fortunate than himself.

Andrew Sullivan says the installation is deeply orthodox in its treatment of suffering.

Maybe what is truly offensive to men like Donohue is the notion that gay men might actually seek refuge in Jesus’ similar experience of marginalized, stigmatized agony. Since the message cannot be objectionable — Jesus shares in our suffering and exemplifies it — maybe it is merely the association with gay men that appalls.

For the powerful and privileged like Donohue, Jesus belongs in the corridors of power and respectability, among the mainstream, depictions of him restricted to images of pristine, prissy reverence rather than the alienated, despairing, naked agony he actually suffered.

The idea that Jesus died for homosexuals is insulting to Donohue; but it is what the church teaches and what Jesus lived.

But when it comes to “creation science” theme parks underwritten with taxpayer dollars, where’s the outrage? Stephen Prothero of Boston University writes:

In a press release yesterday, Gov. Steve Beshear of Kentucky announced that his state had entered into a deal with the folks behind the Creation Museum to break ground for Ark Encounter, a $150 million theme park complete with “a full-scale model of Noah’s Ark.”

Rather than speaking of his state’s support of this group’s creationist agenda, Gov. Beshear spoke of employing 900 workers and drawing 1.6 million visitors a year. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, however, the tax breaks offered by the state to Ark Encounter, as the theme park is being called, “could surpass $37 million.”

The entire exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery (of which the brief clip by the late artist David Wojnarowicz was a small part), cost, by contrast, $750,000, and all of that from private donations.

So my question to Representatives Boehner and Cantor, and to Glenn Beck and others who are working themselves up into a lather over this supposed attack on Christianity, is this: Are you equally outraged over millions in tax breaks to a group promoting fundamentalism?

Would you be outraged at all if the clip in question concerned not an “antsy Christ” but an “antsy Buddha” or an “antsy Christopher Hitchens”? And how loud would the outrage be in Washington if Kentucky’s governor was offering millions in tax incentives to a Hare Krishna theme park? Or a Disney Land of Atheism?

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