Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Little Plastic Crosses, or, Religion and the Politics of Censorship

In 1515, in the central panel of his Isenheim altarpiece triptych, the German painter Matthias Grunevald created the most macabre artistic depiction of Jesus's crucifixion ever put on canvas. No other artwork I can think of so effectively preserves the raw horror of this violent execution.

In Grunevald's painting, the Savior's body is muscled, but emaciated and contorted. His skin is pulled taut over bone and sinew, like cellophane over rancid meat. His flesh is a sickly pallor--a jaundiced yellow--and covered in scrapes and sores. A patchy beard surrounds bluish lips drained of blood, and the crown of thorns that sits atop his head is more properly a full turban of brambles tearing at Jesus's scalp.

But worst of all are the nails that pierce Christ's hands and feet. The spikes pull and distort his skin, ripping open wounds that release blood thick as candle wax. Grunewald's coup de grace is Jesus's hands, menacingly curled into stiff claws that scream the pain racking the messiah's body.

Fittingly, Mary faints, stage right.

I thought of Grunewald's painting while I read coverage, this past weekend, of the National Portrait Gallery's removal of a video by David Wojnarowicz from an exhibit entitled "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." (Wojnarowicz produced the brief piece, called "A Fire in My Belly," after losing his long-time partner to AIDS.)

In pulling the film, the Gallery was bowing to pressure from Catholic League President Bill Donahue and, later, Republican Congressman Eric Cantor, who threatened the museum's funding. (Apparently, it made no difference that "Hide/Seek" was entirely financed by private donors.)

Donahue and Cantor disapproved of a dozen-second clip, buried deep in the film, of what appears to be a small, plastic crucifix overrun by ants. According to the Times, Cantor called the film an "outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season." Donahue echoed, "I’m not going to buy the argument that this is some statement about some poor guy dying of AIDS. Was this supposed to be a Christmas present to Catholics?" (Over the weekend, Frank Rich argued that the video's censorship had less to do with religion than with sexuality, and labeled Donahue's crusade "gay bashing.")

I find the video enigmatic, eerie, and surprisingly moving--not offensive. But don't take my word for it--or Mr. Donahue's. The video follows in its entirety, though I note that it contains a masturbation scene that may not be suitable for younger viewers:

Now, you may find this video objectionable. You may find it gross, or irreligious, or tasteless. You may believe, with Cantor and Donahue, that it should not be part of a national exhibition. And perhaps someday, we can have a cup of coffee and discuss whether or not the government has the right to censor art that you think is degenerate.

But Donahue, Cantor, and the rest of their supporters seem to miss a crucial point in banning the film for its putative obscenity: by comparison, the crucifixion itself is unbearably more obscene! It is violent, provocative, disturbing--an unconscionable execution. It is cruel and unusual punishment. It is torture. It is all that Grunewald paints and more.

And, unbelievably, it is the central symbol of Christianity.

Further, its thorough provocation must swallow the "offense" that may or may not be induced by Wojnarowicz's little film. The vertiginous affront of Christ on the cross dwarfs politicians' mock outrage at insects on vinyl. To know the crucifixion is to know that we can only strive to tame its unruly semantic power--its offensiveness. We cannot add to it.

Which is why I keep returning to Grunewald and the Isenheim altarpiece when thinking over "A Fire in My Belly." This painting reminds us of the crucifixion's insuperable, disgusting force. For me, "Fire" looks small by comparison. And Cantor and Donahue look smaller still.

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