The Culture Wars, Redux

One year ago, we were all struck by a severe sense of déjà vu when the Smithsonian became mired in a disturbingly retro culture war. The controversy stemmed from a National Portrait Gallery exhibit about the experience of gays and lesbians in American art, and specifically one snippet of one video work by a renowned gay artist that a handful of Religious Right activists had deemed "sacrilegious." Led by the perennial anti-gay, anti-secular, anti-Semitic scold Bill Donohue and the right-wing propaganda outfit CNS News, soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor succeeded in stirring up the ire of the Religious Right and convincing the Smithsonian to instantly pull the piece of art on the threat of losing the institution's funding.

We had seen this movie before: Jesse Helms' demonization of Robert Mapplethorpe in the late 1980's, Newt Gingrich's prurient campaign against the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1990s, Rudy Giuliani's opportunistic crusade against the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" exhibit in 1999. But after seeming to lay dormant for a decade, the old culture wars have come impressively easy to a new generation of Tea Party leaders.

It helped that they met with little resistance: when the Smithsonian immediately caved to censorship demands, the Right smelled blood. Their success in censoring gay art at the Smithsonian was so encouraging, it seems, that they're trying it again with the exact same exhibit. But this time they're doing it in an old favorite battleground of "Giuliani Time": the Brooklyn Museum.

The Brooklyn Museum, a private institution housed in a city-owned building, is remounting "Hide/Seek," the Smithsonian show that was widely admired by those who saw it and censored by a handful who didn't. The New York museum decided to display the full show, including A Fire in My Belly, the compilation of video works by the late artist David Wojnarowicz - including a few seconds depicting ants crawling on a crucifix --that became the lightning rod for criticism of the Smithsonian show and was ultimately censored.

This has provided the Religious Right with a perfect opportunity to stir up another anti-gay, "war on Christmas" fuss. In anticipation of the show's opening today, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn sent a letter to the museum objecting to the Wojnarowicz work. New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser quickly weighed in, calling the work a "revolting piece of slime" and tying it to what she sees as a larger "war on Christianity." Peyser also hinted at the real objections behind the vitriol against the "Hide/Seek" exhibit by slyly noting that Wojnarowicz was a "former prostitute" who "died of complications from AIDS in 1992."

Donohue, in his statement about the Brooklyn exhibit, put it even more bluntly: "The fact is that the artist who made the vile video died of self-inflicted wounds: he died of AIDS. The homosexual, David Wojnarowicz, hated the Catholic Church (had he lived by its teachings, he would not have self-destructed)."

Into this newly excited fray of far-right hatemongers like Donohue and Peyser walked a small coalition of Republican elected officials, who saw an opportunity to stir up a controversy and benefit from it. Six GOP politicians, including a U.S. congressman, Staten Island's borough president and a handful of councilmembers and assemblymembers sent a letter to the museum offering their interpretation of the work: "This is not art, this is Christian-bashing... and an obvious attempt to offend Christians on the eve of one of the holiest times of the Christian faith."

Is this really where we are as a country? Are we letting Bill Donohue be our chief censor of theater and art? Are we letting our elected officials stand in solidarity with people who blame AIDS victims for their own deaths? Is art now a matter of politics, and will political censorship keep Americans from voluntarily seeing art and forming their own opinions?

I have invited Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn to discuss these issues with People For the American Way Foundation in a public forum. I hope he accepts. As the Religious Right and the Republican establishment embraces the "culture wars" with a renewed fervor, it's a conversation that Americans need to have.