Listening to the Guy You Worship.

Blake Gopnik on the National Portrait Gallery's decision to close an exhibit after pressure from members of the religious right:

Tuesday, after a few hours of pressure from the Catholic League and various conservatives, it decided to remove a video by David Wojnarowicz, a gay artist who died from AIDS-related illness in 1992. As part of "Hide/Seek," the gallery was showing a four-minute excerpt from a 1987 piece titled "A Fire in My Belly," made in honor of Peter Hujar, an artist-colleague and lover of Wojnarowicz who had died of AIDS complications in 1987. And for 11 seconds of that meandering, stream-of-consciousness work (the full version is 30 minutes long) a crucifix appears onscreen with ants crawling on it. It seems such an inconsequential part of the total video that neither I nor anyone I've spoken to who saw the work remembered it at all.

But that is the portion of the video that the Catholic League has decried as "designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians," and described as "hate speech" -- despite the artist's own hopes that the passage would speak to the suffering of his dead friend.

A few things. First, shame on the National Portrait Gallery for bending to the Catholic League, of all people. Bill Donahue and his group are irrelevant to virtually everyone outside of his sphere of the religious right, and there is little reason to cave to his ubiquitous complaints. Moreover, the Catholic League has absolutely no right to invoke the "royal we" and declare that this video "assaults the sensibilities of Christians." The United States is home to tens of millions of those practicing Christians, many of whom would disagree with the notion that this heartfelt tribute is offensive in any way.

For my part, I'm offended by the existence of a group that sows outrage and ignores the Gospels in favor of hateful, bitter attacks on the marginalized members of our society. Indeed, the Catholic League might want to spend a little less time harassing artists and a little more time focusing on the guy they claim to represent. When it came to the marginalized, he had these words to say for those who scorned them in favor of smug piety:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

-- Jamelle Bouie

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