Yielding to pressure from the Catholic League, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery has removed from a show a video by late artist David Wojnarowicz. Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post injects the discussion with a little common sense.
The piece is included in "Hide/Seek," a show about gay love. Its offending element is, ostensibly, an image of ants crawling on a crucifix.
But that is the portion of the video that the Catholic League has decried as "designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians," and described as "hate speech" - despite the artist's own hopes that the passage would speak to the suffering of his dead friend. 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.
It goes on and on and on, this mad urge everyone seems to feel to control what artists can and cannot say. Gopnik suggests, quite correctly I suspect, that the real problem the Catholic League has is not with ants, but gays.
What is the Catholic League? From the group's website: "Motivated by the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment, the Catholic League works to safeguard both the religious freedom rights and the free speech rights of Catholics whenever and wherever they are threatened."