If its true that historys second appearance is as a farce, then the public uproar (or total lack thereof) surrounding the David Wojnarowicz exhibitionHide/Seek, known mostly for featuring an 11-second-long video of a crucifix with ants crawling over it, is one boring comedy. The exhibit will open at the Brooklyn Museum tomorrow following a stint at the Smithsonian last year where, perhaps unsurprisingly, it stirred up far more interest and opposition. It could be that New Yorkers are simply more jaded than campaign-ready Washingtonians, but it might also be the case that religious believers are getting savvier at handling these predictable outrages.
There have been a few big-name editorials against the exhibit, but even these have been more snarky than indignant. In classic lowbrow-highbrow New York Post style, Andrea Peyser tagged the show as little more than bait for a gullible audience of bourgeois culture vultures. By and large, though, the outpouring of public protest that resulted from, say 1999s Sensation (an exhibit at the same museum featuring arguably more inflammatory images) or occasional comedy films of the past two decades which seemed to have no purpose aside from juvenile mockery of Christianity.
This time around, the Catholic Leagues Bill Donahue (not generally known for placidity) has decided to say nothing about the exhibit (” we can’t be like a dog and pony show every time they show the video ), and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who did call for the video to be pulled, simply wrote a polite letter to the museum requesting the change. Thus far, there are no rosary rallies planned on the steps of the museum; no public acts of civil disobedience or media-grabbing disruption (as has recently been the case in France ).
Perhaps part of the diminished response is because religious leaders are eager to let one secret out of the bag: censorship, a hope and fantasy cherished by the advocates of such transgressive art, was never a genuine threat in the first place. Everyone, including the exhibits fiercest critics, understands the exceptionally broad protections afforded speech in this country, and, to my knowledge, not one has called for revising the First Amendment. Even in previous controversies, like the one in 1999, the farthest anyone went was proposing a reduction in public funding to the museumsomething to which it is certainly not entitled as a matter of right. Hopefully, part of whats happening is that the myth that there exist zealots attempting to hold back the tide of freedom is dissipating.
As always, its the backers of the exhibition who are the presumptuous ones, as Georgetown professor Patrick Deneen pointed out in an excellent article on the Smithsonian controversy last year. They view their art as a matter beyond debate and criticism. Theyre wrong, of course, but perhaps by giving them what they claim to wanta total lack of controversyreligious leaders are exposing the scandalous dishonesty at the heart of these non-radicals and quietly inviting them to try something more interesting.