A familiar morality play, or maybe a Passion Play, has just been staged in our nation’s capital.
The “Hide/Seek” exhibition currently at the Smithsonian addresses themes of gay and lesbian identity and socio-political marginalization. Not very surprisingly, the curators included material that conservatives found offensive enough to require a response – including a threat from our next House Speaker John Boehner (cramming multiple base-stimulative talking points into a single sentence):
Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January when the new majority in the House moves to end the job-killing spending spree in Washington.
The “Smithsonian officials” caved, removing one particularly “controversial” piece.
Though the artist David Wojnarowicz died in 1992 at the age of 37, it turns out that he is available for comment:
The reactions of Boehner and his allies – such as Eric Cantor (“an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season”), Bill Donohue (“hate speech”), Brent Bozell (“assault on Christianity”) – complete and fulfill the work.
It’s not just that an artist must be prepared to embrace the revulsion of men like these. It’s more even than the fact that a work like this one is not intended to be liked, greeted as a compliment to whatever sensibility the viewer happens to bring to it – though this aspect of the artist’s intentions, and evident success, should not be glossed over. To paraphrase Franz Kafka, the video wants to be felt like the death of someone close to us, like the deaths of the artist’s friends or the approaching death of the artist himself. The singer/performer Diamanda Galas was also motivated by the affliction of those close to her, including her brother, who died of AIDS. Our contemporary conservatives likewise experience the work, or pretend to experience it, as an attack on their divine, or some would say imaginary, friend or their friends’ divine-imaginary friend.
Yet all who receive the work, on both sides, as once upon a time the artists, also take pleasure in the at least half-fictive event they have manufactured, are both leaping onto the grand tableau and also admiring their own performances from the audience, playing their divine parts, crucified and crucifying.
If this experience of taking pleasure in the artistic depiction of horror and anguish is a problem, it is not solvable within art: The role of the tragic is to connect us through exemplary suffering to the transcendent – the more horrible, the more wondrous; the further flung down, the higher upraised. The Christ myth serves the same purpose, and, for the same reason, after Christ tragedy is never truly tragedy again in the Christian West, since all and any tragedies are always already subsumed within all-embracing redemption. Yet many believers, or friends of believers – Jewish Congressmen with significant social conservative constituencies, for instance – seem to treat open recognition of the fact as itself a sin, and prefer to choose among tragedies – redeemable ones over here, irredeemable over there (if you wish to keep your funding).
Any attempt to expose the crucifixion as mere fiction repeats what is supposed to be erased. To proclaim the falseness or the mere historicity, merely human reality of the crucifixion is to seek the death of Jesus Christ all over again, to re-crucify [h]im in stripping [h]im of divinity. Yet the same must be true of any attempt to take possession of His sacrifice, as a mere precious object to be defended against the comfort, however distorted by agony, the dying might take in it. …and so the tableau repeats itself again, and again, forever… and we all go mad or into ecstasy, or turn to the sports pages, or to the politics as sports pages, where we find John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Bill Donohue, Brent Bozell, and countless hacks pulling up their pseudo-priestly skirts and squealing at the deeply offensive utterly indefensible intolerable desecration. On the other side of the sphere, Andrew Sullivan, offended by their offense-taking, utterly defends it.
And lots of people – “Piss Christ”-ically – will be exposed to the Desecration who otherwise would never have had the slightest idea that it existed. Boehner et al have ensured that the message will receive a wide audience, and years of notoriety. It was already a cri de coeur. It’s now been amplified, and, having taken on further status as a reference point, will be heard and heard again.
Art wins, and happens in passing to expose, as ever, the feeble-spirited and, at their head, our elected Pharisees. Too bad the Artist had to be crucified for the purpose – but He knew the job was a martyrdom operation when he accepted it.