Ant-covered Jesus video removed from National Portrait Gallery

An excerpt from a version of the video 'A Fire in My Belly' by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, which the National Portrait Gallery removed from the show 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.'
William Donohue
President, Catholic League
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 2:00 PM

Catholic League president William Donohue was online Wednesday, Dec. 1, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the removal of a work of video art depicting Christ with ants crawling over him at the National Portrait Gallery after complaints which was prompted by the organization and members of Congress.


William Donohue: Hi, I'm Bill Donohue, ready to discuss the vile video.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Donohue, I can't begin to say how angry and disappointed this censorship makes me. My simple question/comment is this: If you don't want to see this exhibit, don't go see it. Why do you think that you have the right to keep me from seeing it?

William Donohue: Nothing I did constituted censorship, nor did I even ask that the vile video be pulled. Censorship means the government abridges speech--all I am asking is for the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to reconsider federal funding of the Smithsonian. My principle is this: if it is wrong for the government to pick the pocket of the public to promote religion, it should be equally wrong to pick its pocket to assault it.


Fairfax, Va.: What were the criteria used by you to ask that it be removed?

William Donohue: The criteria I used were honesty and common sense. I know, as well as my critics, that if Muhammad were shown with ants eating him, Muslims would never allow the retort that it wasn't meant to offend. So what was this vile video? A Christmas gift to Christians. It was hate speech, pure and simple, and it should not be funded by the 80 percent of the nation which is Christian.


Washington, D.C.: Will the committees consider withholding funding?

William Donohue: I hope they will reconsider funding. After all, why should the working class pay for the leisure, e.g., going to museums, of the upper class? We don't subsidize professional wrestling, yet the working class has to pay for the leisure of the rick. Not only that, because the elites don't smoke, they bar the working class from smoking in arenas. This is class discrimination and should be opposed by those committed to social justice.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Mr. Donohue, While I respect your right to object to art -- or anything else -- I have to say I'm quite tired of you and others jumping on things like this and demanding their removal. I am Catholic. I deserve to see such things for MYSELF and decide if I am offended, or not. There is freedom of speech and expression here and I'd be obliged if you'd let me review things and make my own decisions about that expression. If someone wants to criticize, or even mock, Christianity or Islam or Judaism, they are allowed. If you don't like it, then don't look, or please do protest, but do NOT take away my option to form my own opinion.

Actions like this make people more curious about the work -- this spineless action by the Smithsonian will result in more people making an effort to see the work. Is that what you wanted?

William Donohue: If someone wants to peddle hate speech disguised as art, let them do it on their own dime. Moreover, when the Chicago City Council ordered the police into a museum in the 1980s to take down a portrait of the black mayor, Mr. Washington (he was shown in his underwear), none of those branding me a censor said a word. I have never called for censorship, but I have asked legitimate questions regarding the propriety of funding hate speech directed at my religion.


Contradictions?: You say that the government should not promote or assault religion. So what happens next week when the National Christmas tree is illuminated? Paid for by the government and the National Park Service. Is that a promotion of Christianity?

Now don't get me wrong, I am Christian and love Christmas (manger, trees, lights, all of it) but be careful what you say or you might find yourself in a contradiction.

William Donohue: Christmas is a national holiday and the Christmas tree is a secular symbol.


Arlington: Mr. Donohue: You write the following --

"My principle is this: if it is wrong for the government to pick the pocket of the public to promote religion, it should be equally wrong to pick its pocket to assault it."

Yet, the Smithsonian Institution, like every major museum in the Western world, is home to dozens if not hundreds of pieces of religious art, much of it Catholic.

No right-thinking person would consider the government's partial funding of an institution presenting these works as an establishment of religion; so why is this case any different?

(And that's granting your dubious idea that this small snippet of a much larger work constitutes an "assault" on religion.)

William Donohue: The officials who pulled the vile video said they never meant to offend Catholics. All the more reason to cut funding: they are either too stupid or too venal. Or they lie.


Washington, D.C.: Ants crawling on a crucifix is no different than ants crawling on a rock. They're both inanimate objects. Whether you're a member of organized religion or not, anyone with an open, intellectual mind is able to understand this.

William Donohue: Fine. Then let the ants crawl on an image of Martin Luther King next month when we celebrate his day, and let the taxpayers underwrite it.


Washington, D.C. : David Wojnarowicz's video was set in the days of the AIDS epidemic. He had been thrown out of his home when he came out, and had to survive in the streets. His art was about alienation, despair, rebellion and survival. When placed in context, you can see that this was not an assault on the Christian faith. Why do you deny us the opportunity for a conversation? The whole point of this exhibit was to confront and try to look behind the veil, not to change points of view but show that there other points of view.

William Donohue: Someone should have gotten to him earlier and told him to stop with his self-destructive behavior and to stop blaming the faithful for his maladies.


Annapolis, Md.: Is this a safe area to enter by the Catholic League: politics? How would other Catholic organizations feel about it? And do other Catholic centers agree with what you are condoning?

William Donohue: They can do what they want. We engage the public square, so controversy comes with the territory.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: How do you define the difference between art and anything that might be deemed offensive? The very nature of art is expression and individuality. How is this different than many other almost macabre images of the crucifixion, Jesus's suffering, or cruelty of man against man--all depicted in art.

William Donohue: People in the asylum are expressive as well, and so are children in nursery schools. Should we subidize them as well?


Alexandria, Va.: Were you upset by the video? Who else has viewed it at the League? Was it a consensus of opinion that led to your request to remove it?

William Donohue: I first heard about it from a reporter Monday night, viewed it online Tuesday morning and then wrote my news release. We usually kick around ideas about what to do, but on this one, I made the call.


Museum Funding: Are you speaking for William Donohue or Catholic League membership or Catholics at large when you question the propriety of federal funding for the Smithsonian? What is the membership of the Catholic League?

William Donohue: I am speaking for the Catholic League and its members.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Donohue, I am sorry that the work of art in question--and yes, that is what it is--offends you. But trust me, I'm even more offended by your bullying the Smithsonian into pulling it, especially when you haven't even seen it for yourself!

I have seen it and found it quite moving. Admittedly, I'm not Catholic, but I am a Christian, and do not see any intent on the artist's part to denigrate anyone's faith. But even if that WERE his goal, aren't you just giving him what he wants?

And by the way, the exhibit went up more than a month ago and will be there until February. So the allegation that it was intended as an attack on Christmas is simply ludicrous.

William Donohue: Do you object to my First Amendment right to exercise freedom of speech?

I don't know why it wasn't brought to my attention before, but once it was, I acted.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Donahue, I'm sorry, I missed your answer to Arlington's question about the numerous examples of religious art in the Smithsonian: By your logic, that should be pulled, too, no?

William Donohue: I never asked for the vile video to be pulled. But quite frankly, if museums were privately funded, then much controversy could be avoided.


Los Angeles, Calif.: You're missing the point, Mr. Donohue. You keep categorizing this piece as "vile" and acting as if it is universally established that there is some sort of malice behind it. I look at that piece and I don't see that at all. In fact I see it as a very brilliant and creative way of depicting the "masses" who consumed and perverted Christ and his teachings. My opinion, of course, but that is the whole point of art: it is the interpretation. Since you look at this and see something assaulting your religion, I would suggest that instead of going after the artist, you ask yourself why you see that in the first place?

William Donohue: Art is always partially in the eyes of the beholder, but never always. The fact that racists might like to see a white man urinate in the mouth of black man doesn't vitiate my objections to it.


William Donohue: Sorry guys, but I have to go. I enjoyed kicking this around with you, even if it is clear we disagree.

Merry Christmas.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company