Chris Ofili, "The Holy Virgin Mary" (detail)

Back in 2004, I had an email exchange with The New York Post’s conservative columnist Arnold Alhert over Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11. In his column, he imagined a conservative film response that would include footage of burned American’s bodies hanging from a bridge in Fallujah, Iraq. To anyone who had seen the film, there was an obvious issue with the article: this footage WAS in Moore’s film. Naming his hypothetical film “What They Don’t Want You to See” (or some such), Alhert gave away a simple truth (which he never denied when asked about it): he had never SEEN Moore’s documentary.

Is this an exception? Hardly.

The latest example is the faux outrage over artist David Wojnarowicz’s video, “Fire In My Belly,” displayed in the National Portrait Gallery of The Smithsonian. (See the video in my previous post.) While the exhibit received only a single complaint since the show was mounted in the beginning of November; Republican lawmakers John Boehner and Eric Cantor effectively got the Smithsonian to censor itself by repeating a Catholic League claim that a short segment of the film was “hate speech” directed at Christians. It was also clear that they had never seen the piece. This was confirmed in later reporting.

Why was this obvious?

The video also features male nudity and a graphic depiction of masterbation. One would think that a conservative group attempting to draw attention to supposedly “offensive” material would use the CONTENT of the piece against itself. This is next to impossible if you are too lazy to actually review the material.

This also serves the purpose of keeping people who support your cause in the dark about both the content and context of what they are complaining about.

It is worth noting that early reporting of the controversy on Fox News and conservative web sites like Big Hollywood failed to mention the name of the artist or of the piece. Why risk people making up their own minds about how offensive the art is after an easy Google search? And why research The Catholic League’s claims when you are simply re-posting their talking points?

I was amused by a similar blind spot when Rudy Giuliani protested the elephant-dung infused Chris Ofili painting “The Holy Virgin Mary” as blasphemous (another controversy originally orchestrated by The Catholic League).

All of the press on this discussed the talking point that the artist used elephant dung to thicken the paint (very common in African art), while completely missing that the entire surface of the painting was festooned with a collage of pornographic magazine images of female genitalia. You’d think this might help them make their case. But of course, this would involve actually looking at the art.

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