Norman Rockwell and other blasphemies

Of all the Smithsonians, my favorites are the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of Health and Medicine (or as I call it, the Museum of Medical Oddities). The NPG was closed for something like five years while undergoing a costly renovation. But it reopened a few years back and is back in the news with an exhibit ("Hide/Seek") exploring sexual identity in art. It turns out to have some rather provocative pieces. There's the video with a segment depicting ants eating a crucifix. The artist behind the video, who died of complications from AIDS, was attempting to make a statement against religious figures. Some people viewed it as blasphemous and inappropriate for a government-run museum. The exhibit in general deals with homoeroticism, which is unsurprising. It also apparently deals with sadomasochism (such as a portrait of a man eating himself), incest (two naked brothers making out), and other themes that aren't necessarily family friendly. I haven't seen it and since I do all my museum visiting these days with two young children, I won't be.

I learned about the incest and what not from watching a John King segment on CNN. It was actually a nicely done segment, pitting Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik -- who adored the show and was shocked that anyone would be personally offended from the exhibit -- and Media Research Center's Brent Bozell, who found it sacrilegious and inappropriate.

Maybe my standard for Cable TV journalism is low, but I thought the discussion was enlightening. I learned from both guests, who were encouraged to discuss not the exhibit so much as the issue of whether it was appropriate for a government-run museum. Gopnik was better at defending the exhibit rather than defending its placement at the Smithsonian.

At one point, Bozell asked CNN -- which had filmed the entire exhibit -- to show the actual images, without pixelation. King responded that he definitely would not. "Why not?" Bozell asked. King explained that these images could be offensive and that children -- including his own -- could be watching. Bozell basically said "well, there you go" before pointing out that the Smithsonian had just hosted a "family day" a couple of weeks ago for the exhibit, with special activities for kids. Exciting television.

OK, so there are all sorts of media angles here.

It's interesting that the story was broken by, a conservative news site, rather than a mainstream outlet. The Washington Post reviewed the exhibit a couple of weeks earlier and only had raves. In fact, the reviewer (Gopnik) said it tackled the topic of same-sex attraction with "subtlety" and was one of the "best thematic exhibitions in years." The quality of the exhibit suggests that being gay means you're a "better, more careful observer," Gopnik said. It's a very heartfelt review and it's clear that Gopnik was deeply moved by the show.

The review doesn't mention or consider whether anyone might find any aspect of the show sacrilegious or otherwise inappropriate for a taxpayer-funded museum. In a later piece, he wrote "I can't stand the view of America that [Norman Rockwell] presents, which I feel insults a huge number of us non-mainstream folks." But he didn't call for the notoriously repulsive Rockwell exhibit to be removed so he can't understand why anyone might speak out against the current one. "In America no one group -- and certainly no single religion -- gets to declare what the rest of us should see and hear and think about," writes the arts critic for the paper that refused to show readers what the fuss was about with the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy a few years ago. He then says it's clear that those expressing concern aren't really motivated by religion but just their backwardness about homosexuality.

So that tells you a bit about the approach that the Post is taking with this controversy.

Much of that type of coverage, however, is relegated to arts criticism columns, the perfect place for expressing those types of condescending views. The news-ish coverage itself has been on fire -- people are really animated on this issue on both sides. You can get a full linking of mostly Style section coverage here.

One of the things I find fascinating is related to the portrayal of the controversial images. CNN might have pixelated some of the pieces -- but they avoided broadcasting most of the controversial pieces anyway. When the Washington Post selected images to show from the exhibit in the initial review, they were images that were family friendly -- or only mildly provocative (a clothed Ellen Degeneres in painted face grabbing her breasts). But even after the controversy erupted, I noticed that NPR did the same thing. By that point the choice of pictures is more interesting. It makes it seem as if critics simply don't want to see an old photo of a bearded, caped Walt Whitman in a rocking chair or whatever.

In general, coverage has focused almost exclusively on the controversy of the ants and the crucifix, ignoring the complaints about other parts of the show. This Jacqueline Trescott write-up of the exhibit controversy for the Washington Post focuses exclusively on the video. It gets the requisite William Donohue/Catholic League quotes. He certainly jumped on the controversy, but I must admit I'd like a much more expansive response from religious figures. I have no trouble understanding that this exhibit in general and the desecrated crucifix in particular would be horribly offensive to Christians. I can also imagine that there would be Christians who would take no offense or even some traditionalists who would find an inoffensive meaning to the art. I follow enough of the news to know that this exhibit has touched a nerve -- but I think a good article might explore precisely what is offensive or, on the other hand, can be justified about this piece.

Gopnik -- writing as a reporter, not a critic -- had a fascinating piece looking at Shoja Azari, an Iranian artist who lives in New York:

In a much-publicized exhibition in May at LTMH gallery in New York, Azari edged still further toward the edge of blasphemy. In a series of video pieces he called "Icons," he took images of martyred Shiite saints, such as might be seen in any kitchen in Iran (the regime approves of them) and replaced their male faces with the faces of crying women, meant to evoke the female "martyrs" of the failed "Green Revolution" that took place in Iran last year.

"It could be interpreted as sacrilegious," Azari says, even though he insists his aim was not to "insult religious belief" but rather to explore the connection between religion, gender and politics in present-day Iran. When the show was in the planning stages, he says, "there was a lot of discomfort among people in the gallery." But in the end the decision was made to go ahead.

"We got a few threats," says his dealer Leila Heller, speaking by phone from the fair, "but we ignored them." The work could never be shown in Iran, but in the West, there's little hesitation, and Azari's star is rising - he says his "Icons" show had a "fantastic" reception in Germany, and the New York Times did a large piece on him, illustrated with one of his "sacrilegious" images.

You can see that interesting review and the image here. Let us know if you see any other particularly good or bad coverage of this controversy.

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