The Washington Post keeps adding to its sympathetic portrayal of the radical-left gay artist whose work was removed from the National Portrait Gallery for putting ants on a crucifix, mocking Jesus Christ. Three days ago, The Post's Style section lamented on the front of the Style section about how the "pesky ant video refuses to die." But on Friday morning, a huge (8 by 8) black-and-white photo of artist David Wojnarowicz graced an essay by critic Philip Kennicott. The essay (and four more photographs) covered the entire back page of Style. The headline was "The 'Fire' man: David Wojnarowicz, censored by the Smithsonian, sounded an alarm in dire times."
Kennicott championed the artist as he railed against the cruelty of Reagan conservatives and the Catholic Church: "Not simply a cry of anguish or protest, Wojnarowicz's work captures the contradiction, speed and phantasmagoria of a time when it was reasonable to assume that all the political and social progress gay people had achieved in the 1960s and '70s was being revoked - against the surreal, Reagan-era backdrop of Morning in America, and a feel-good surge of American nostalgia and triumphalism."
After lamenting that the Catholic League is "a relatively small organization that has leveraged a remarkable amount of influence in the culture wars over the past two decades," Kennicott underlined that Wojnarowicz was anti-Catholic and anti-religious: "In interviews, Wojnarowicz remembered cruel treatment in a Catholic school he briefly attended, and in one of his works, which often mixed images and text, he recalled "the religious types outside St. Patrick's Cathedral shouting to men and women in the gay parade: 'You won't be here next year - you'll get AIDS and die ha ha . . . ' "
That is not something a "religious type" should ever say. But Kennicott lets it stand as if it fairly represents the parishioners of the cathedral, and as if that somehow excuses Jesus-bashing art. Wojnarowicz warred on conservatives, but the Post thought he was only "scabrous" if you wrenched him out of context:
In his writings and spoken theater pieces, he assailed the pope and prominent Catholics, including Cardinal John O'Connor, then archbishop of New York, and conservative Catholic commentators William F. Buckley and Patrick Buchanan. These attacks were generally part of elaborate, imaginative social vignettes that captured the topsy-turvy nature of the world in the late 1980s - the fear of nuclear holocaust, the increasing moral faith in untrammeled capitalism - but when excerpted from their context, they can seem purely scabrous.
But anger at the church was only natural, for reasons political, historical and artistic. Politically, the Catholic Church opposed the use of condoms, the only proven way to prevent transmission of the disease if one didn't subscribe to a proscription of sex outside of marriage - a contract unavailable to all gay people at the time, and to most of them today. In New York City, where the Catholic Church was almost a branch of the city government, where popular festivals such as Saint Patrick's Day excluded gay people from participation and often devolved into gay bashing in the West Village, the church's edicts were particularly powerful.
Is Kennicott serious? Anyone following politics in 1987 or 1988 would not tell you New York City was being run by Cardinal O'Connor, and New York wasn't some kind of conservative hotbed. It was dark-blue then, as it is now. Notice that again, Kennicott sees "gay bashing" in the streets as a natural outgrowth of the Catholic Church's teachings on sexuality.
In 1989, when the National Endowment for the Arts withdrew a grant for an AIDS exhibit including Wojnarowicz's fierce radical remarks, The New York Times reported Cardinal O'Connor issued a statement: ''Had I been consulted, I would have urged very strongly that the National Endowment not withdraw its sponsorship on the basis of criticism against me personally. I do not consider myself exempt from or above criticism by anyone.'' (At the time, Wojnarowicz and his curators refused to show reporters his criticisms of the Cardinal and conservative politicians that were to be included in the exhibit's catalog, and Kennicott didn't offer any quotes for context.) But Kennicott was on a liberal roll:
Prominent Catholic leaders were also in the forefront of a cultural counterattack on homosexuals in the late 1980s. Buckley, the founder of the National Review who was lavishly praised upon his death as a genial and erudite gentleman, wrote in 1986, "Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals." It was a chilling and apparently intentional reference to Nazi treatment of the Jews, and it was entirely within the mainstream for public commentary on the disease the year before Wojnarowicz found out he was HIV-positive.
Wrong, and wrong. The Post utterly failed to put any copy editors on what happened with Buckley's comment. He very much resented the idea that he was implying the Nazis (obviously, the columnist proposed these humiliating tattoos as a life-saving mark, not as a death-camp image.) Buckley ended up not only recanting the tattoo idea, and having a meeting with the Gay Men's Health Crisis and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. As James Warren of the Chicago Tribune reported in September, he also published a cover story in National Review magazine:
In a "Conservative Speaks Out for Gay Rights," an author identified only as a "longtime conservative activist" maintains that Buckley, Jerry Falwell and the National Review "have an unseemly obsession with homosexuality."
He notes Buckley's suggestion of tattooing gay AIDS victims on the fanny and finds it part of an obsession "totally disproportionate to (homosexuality's) significance as either a phenomenon or a problem compared with the disastrous state of heterosexuality, i.e., divorce, teenage pregnancy, child abuse, rape, wholesale abortion and congenital venereal diseases that affect more children than AIDS."
This would seem to refute the essayist's ahistorical notion that the tattoo idea was widely accepted and "entirely within the mainstream for public commentary."
Kennicott agreed that Wojnarowicz embraced what conservatives see as a radical war on religion and the family, but kept underlining how the Catholic Church was an oppresssor who deserved the abuse:
Historically, the church was also a rich target. Although gay rights today have largely embraced a vision of equality premised on inclusion within traditional social structures - marriage and the military - in the 1980s those goals were so unlikely as to seem absurd. Wojnarowicz came from an artistic tradition that included prominent sexual "outlaws" such as Genet ("canonized" as a saint by Jean-Paul Sartre), the prostitute-turned-novelist John Rechy, the drug-hoovering provocateur William S. Burroughs and the classic poete maudit Arthur Rimbaud. Which is to say that the elaborate and radical antisocial agenda that conservative critics fear lurks behind demands for marriage equality today was, in fact, very much part of Wojnarowicz's worldview. And as the oldest continually functioning institution in Western society, the church stood in for other forms of oppression that artists such as Wojnarowicz were attacking.
Despite the artist's bizarre idea that the most perverse radicals should be added to a legion of Catholic saints, Kennicott labored mightily to suggest that perhaps Wojnarowicz putting ants on the Cross wasn't railing against Christianity:
Ants, for Wojnarowicz, were a mysterious stand-in for humanity and part of a lifelong fascination with the natural world that his friend, artist Kiki Smith, recalls was part of a charmingly boyish rapture with creepy, crawling things. When asked what he thought of God, he responded by wondering rhetorically "why ants aren't the things that destroy the world instead of people." There is a host of theological possibility in that thought: Is God as indifferent to humans as humans are to ants? Should we love the small things of the planet as we hope to be loved by God?
The bolded phrase here was a pull quote above an ants-on-Christ picture with the caption "Raging Against?..." Kennicott concluded by attempting to explain that a Wojnarowicz picture of Jesus with a hypodermic needle in his arm wasn't anti-Christian either: "I wanted to make a model that would show that he would take on the suffering of the vast amounts of addiction that I saw on the streets."
If that were true, doesn't a needle in the arm suggest defeat, not victory over suffering?