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Reaction to National Portrait Gallery's ants-and-crucifix controversy

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A small group of protestors and onlookers gather outside the National Portrait Gallery where a controversial video installation was removed after pressure from the Catholic League and various conservatives.

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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 10:23 PM

Editor's note: Art critic Blake Gopnik received an influx of reader mail regarding his criticism of the National Portrait Gallery's decision to remove a provocative piece of video art. Here he responds to some representative questions:

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• Dean S.: "Why should the general American public fund art that is offensive to them? Let the artists get help from individuals like yourself who may be attracted to a particular type of art or message."

Can we all agree that in the long run, art is pretty much as important as anything else a society produces or does? If that's the case, maybe it's too important to leave in private hands, where the choices of a few rich funders determine what works are preserved and displayed for the rest of us. Things we really care about - our defense, education, food safety, roads - tend to be in public hands, so maybe art should be, too.

But I think the real issue behind this whole fuss isn't about whether any art should be cared for at public expense. (How many people really want to privatize Leonardo da Vinci's "Ginevra de Benci," now housed in our publicly funded National Gallery?) The debate is over which art should be shown and preserved. And that brings us to a big problem faced by almost anyone who cares deeply about art today: Many Americans think of art as being only about beauty and pleasant experiences of pretty things. Whereas those who spend a big chunk of their lives with it - artists, of course, but also critics, curators, scholars, collectors and plain devotees - tend to think that art can be much more than that. It can raise tough questions, and puzzle us, and challenge our ideas about what both art and life can be.

If this tougher view of art is even partly right, it is inevitable that some of the art that ends up in our museums, as curators hunt for what might turn out to be good in the end, will upset or provoke some, even many, of its viewers. Does that mean that no taxpayer money should go to any museum? I believe that, instead, it means that all of us need to take a deep breath when we feel put upon by art we dislike. For the good of all of us, all of us might sometimes need to bear with the occasional offense.

• Don K.: "What do you think the reaction of the Gallery would have been if it had received that video and it contained 11 seconds of ants crawling on a copy of the Koran?"

If a work of art depicted a Koran, or a Torah, or any other religious image in a way that might offend some of the devout, you'd first want to see if the offense was gratuitous, or necessary to the meaning and the substance of the piece. A simple, straightforward insult, whatever or whoever its target, is almost always boring art. That would be the reason for excluding it. If the piece seemed complex and important and probing, then you'd want to see it, despite how some people might feel.

• Channing S.: "It is not the homosexuality that offends me or the majority of Christians - it is disrespect of something representing the reason that I live my life. . . . Please take into consideration that maybe - just maybe - some people would be offended by blatant defamation of a symbol of their Savior, Best Friend and reason for living."

Yes, I see and appreciate that some Christians and Catholics might be deeply, painfully offended by seeing even 11 seconds of a crucifix covered with ants.

I can also see how an artist, witnessing the hideous, heart-rending loss of a loved one to AIDS, might choose to express his feelings by showing an effigy of Jesus crawling with ants - a young man abject and miserable, defeated and cast in the dirt, without the strength even to defend himself from the tiniest of insects.

I am quite certain that many Christians would take no offense from the same imagery, and understand it as David Wojnarowicz seems to have intended - or in any of 100 different ways.

I also know that there are many devout, traditional Protestants who would object to seeing their Saviour depicted in any way, shape or form, and might prefer that even the most precious Renaissance paintings of him be taken down.


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