Francis Bacon: Fragment of a Crucifixion, circa 1950

With barely a sigh from the media, the religious right and cultural conservatives have scored a major new victory in their cultural war against contemporary art.

There has already been commentary on how the story’s main premise is false (the exhibit wasn’t federally funded), why censorship is usually bad, and even it’s unfortunate timing.

Precious little has been said about the video in question’s supposed offensiveness to Christians, as well as its context within fine art and historical depictions of Christ.

After seeing the video myself, I believe the artist’s use of a crucifix attracting ants is part of a long artistic tradition of grotesques and metaphors for suffering:

The soundtrack includes slightly re-worked scripture from Leviticus with warnings as to what is “unclean,” putting this work about AIDS into at least an ambivalent zone regarding religion. Yet the right wants you to believe the artist was attacking Christianity.

It may be of interest that this work is from 23 years ago, made in the same year as André Serrano’s infamous Piss Christ (1987). I guess it took this long for the right-wing to notice?

But back to the art historical context of this type of imagery. Blake Gopnik offers some excellent insight in his Washington Post article:

The irony is that Wojnarowicz’s reading of his piece puts it smack in the middle of the great tradition of using images of Christ to speak about the suffering of all mankind. There is a long, respectable history of showing hideously grisly images of Jesus – 17th-century sculptures in the National Gallery’s recent show of Spanish sacred art could not have been more gory or distressing – and Wojnarowicz’s video is nothing more than a relatively tepid reworking of that imagery, in modern terms.

Oh yeah, THAT. One can only speculate if Boehner and Cantor have seen Francis Bacon’s paintings from the 50s, or medieval crucifixions and religious art (or even The Passion of The Christ) that use horrific grotesques and all manner of depictions of demonic possession, spiritual anguish, and piety.

Crucifixion, Matthias Grunwald, 16th Century

Barring that, it would seem that they would at least have some idea about the historical context of declaring art works unfit for public consumption. Watch carefully in the next few days as the MSM rolls over on this one, allowing conservative activists to shape the debate. And watch for the complete lack of any substantive discussion of the actual merit of this particular artwork.

Hitler hated modern art, too.