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Season’s Bleatings: The War on Christmas Starts at the Smithsonian

The signs of the holiday season are upon us: Black Friday, Cyber Monday, twinkling lights, overdecorated malls, and now, finally, the annual conservative cri de Coeur—The War on Christmas! This year, the battle begins at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, which has played host to the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture since October 30th. An intrepid conservative reporter finally stumbled upon (or disingenuously timed coverage of) the exhibition this past week and fired the first shot in 2010’s War on Christmas by taking aim at the late David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video “A Fire in My Belly.” Somehow a show centered on difference and desire in American portraiture has become a “Christmas show,” as conservatives take umbrage with Wojnarowicz’s imagery of a crucified Jesus Christ covered in ants (a still from the film is shown above). So, let’s all gather under the tree and let the Season’s Bleatings begin.

Penny Star of CNS News “broke” the story on November 29th with the unforgettable title, “Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus, Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts.” (If that title doesn’t beg to be set to the tune of the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” I don’t know what does.) Star works her way through the exhibition apparently peeking through her fingers as she covers her face from pure shock. What appalls Star most is the idea that her tax dollars could support such art as Wojnarowicz’s video to appear in the publically funded, government-run Smithsonian gallery where children and even portraits of George Washington can catch an eyeful. (An excerpt of “A Fire in My Belly” including the ants on Jesus segment can be seen here.)

Enter Glen Beck yesterday on his white horse and cable TV show to the rescue. Standing before his signature blackboard, Beck denounced the exhibit to a wider audience:

“And then you have the tax dollars funding this wonderful art display. It’s Christmas at the Smithsonian. Here’s this wonderful—oh, look, it’s Jesus with ants on him. They describe it as the first major exhibition to focus on the sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture. What? You got to be kidding me, right? What does this have to do with the birth of the baby Jesus, and why is he now covered in ants? Whose values are these? And you wonder why there’s the breakdown of the family.”

Star at least had the honesty to point out that the exhibition itself is not funded by tax dollars. Instead, she points out that only private funds went into Hide/Seek, listing organizations such as The Calamus Foundation, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation—all of which have ties to the gay community and gay artists—but leaving out the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, founded by conservative artist Andrew Wyeth, and other “straight” contributors. Star shifts her protest to the idea that the building itself, which does operate through tax dollars, plays host to the exhibition. Beck, however, doesn’t put such a fine point on his protest, choosing instead to distort the facts.

This protest harks back to the classic conservative weapon of choice of the culture wars—government funding for art they find offensive. The Smithsonian and other institutions have fought this battle again and again and specifically fund controversial shows with private funds. The conservative argument that the hosting building is paid for with “their” tax dollars and shouldn’t allow such “trash” to be seen assumes that the building operates solely with “their” tax dollars.” My tax dollars keep the National Portrait Gallery doors open, too. They can operate in my part (and the part of others who support the show). (My earlier review of Hide/Seek, along with the photo of Ellen, can be read here.)

Alas, the National Portrait Gallery decided to give in rather than ruin the holidays and has pulled Wojnarowicz’s video from the exhibition. Perhaps that will placate the show’s opponents, but I doubt it. This protest is about what we can call art—specifically what we can call art when it uses the imagery of Jesus. It’s even sadder on this day, World AIDS Day, that Wojnarowicz, who used the imagery of the suffering savior to symbolize the agony of AIDS sufferers in the banned film, can still be silenced nearly two decades after his death from that tragic disease. I wonder what today’s conservatives would have thought of Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece upon its completion in 1515? Grünewald depicted Christ on the cross as suffering from the same gruesome skin diseases as those who would come to the Colmar, Alsace monastery seeking treatment from the monks. They looked up to that suffering savior and saw themselves, and that gave them hope. The LGBT community and all who consider themselves “different” look to works such as Wojnarowicz’s film and others pieces in Hide/Seek to see themselves, and find hope. Christmas, at least to me, is about looking at a tiny child in a manger—a miracle full of unbounded potential, as all children are—and seeing myself, and that gives me hope to be a better person and to contribute to a better world. Glen Beck, Penny Star, and others can bleat all they wish, but my wish is for a peaceful, accepting, Silent Night.

Christmas may be Jesus’ “birthday,” but, as any mother will tell you, his mother Mary really deserves the applause. Providing the humanity half to join with Christ’s divine side, Mary volunteered to play a part from the Incarnation to the Crucifixion to the Resurrection as everything from an active participant to an interested bystander, depending on your interpretation of Christian scripture. 
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