Thursday, July 7, 2011

Crucifixation: Censoring Religiously-Themed Contemporary Art

Ethics in art can sometimes bring up more questions than it does answers. How fine is the line between art and obscenity? Is it ever ethical for a museum to censor an art exhibit – due to public pressure, funding cuts or for another reason?

While the modern art movement began with avant-gardist Impressionism, which is widely accepted, many people still classify the modern art spirit like a rancid stew of crudeness, irreligion and bodily fluids. Three oft-mentioned works that exemplify this misguided assumption are David Wojnarowicz’s ‘Fire in My Belly’, Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’, and Chris Ofili’s ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’.

Last year’s Smithsonian controversy over the film ‘Fire in My Belly’ sparked a flurry of attacks, including debate on whether the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) should be defunded.  The questionable portion of the film involves a scene where ants can be seen crawling over a crucifix. Wojnarowicz’s body was being ravaged by the effects of AIDS when he made the film. The image of ants on a crucifix is phantasmagorical illustration of the suffering of Christ and the suffering of AIDS victims. Angered by the shocking lack of comfort and respect given to homosexual victims of the AIDS epidemic, Wojnarowicz did criticize the church – particularly the Catholic Church, who, to this day still preaches a no condom use doctrine, which is unhelpful in stopping the spread of AIDS.1

Film still from the contested portion of David Wojnarowicz's 1986-87 'Fire in My Belly'

‘Fire in My Belly’ was being shown as part of the ‘Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture’ exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery. Critics, including the Catholic League, argued that the film was anti-Christian and was a way to mock faith during the Christmas season. The Smithsonian Museum issued an apology for the offense and pulled the video in late November 2010. The Association of Art Museum Directors charged that the Smithsonian caved to conservative interests by censoring the exhibit, a charge the institution denies.2

‘Piss Christ’, features a plastic crucifix submerged in a container of amber-colored liquid, known to be the artist’s urine. In 1989, The American Family Association, a Christian non-profit organization which attempts to promote the “biblical ethic of decency”, rallied against the NEA after it was revealed that some funds were used to by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art to award Serrano $15,000 after winning one of the Awards in Visual Arts.3
As a result of the uproar Serrano did lose grant money, but many came to his defense, including famed art critic Lucy Lippard, who lauded the formal aesthetic appeal of the Cibachrome print, and Sister Wendy, a Catholic nun and notable art critic.4 Sister Wendy was not offended by the work and instead saw it as a reflection on “what we have done to Christ” – a comment on modern society’s perversion of the values Christ espoused.5

Andres Serrano's 'Piss Christ'  (1987)

‘Piss Christ’ has been vandalized numerous times, including this past April by two French Catholic Fundamentalists while on view at the Museum of Contemporary art in Avignon. The men attacked the work, as well as another Serrano print, with hammers.6

Ten years later after the controversy over ‘Piss Christ, in late 1999, the Brooklyn Museum mounted Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. The exhibition was first shown at London’s Royal Academy of Art in 1997 and featured the following disclaimer at the entrance:

There will be works of art on display in the Sensation exhibition which some people may find distasteful. Parents should exercise their judgment in bringing their children to the exhibition. One gallery will not be open to those under the age of 18.7

Chris Ofili's 'The Holy Virgin Mary' (1996), Courtesy of Victoria Miro Gallery, London

The show did produce a stir in London, but interestingly, not for the same works as it later did in New York. Although several works inspired the ire of conservative critics, then Mayor Rudy Giuliani objected quite specifically to the inclusion of Ofili’s ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’. Ofili, a British native of African descent included elephant dung in a number of works as a nod to his heritage. Ironically, Ofili identifies as a churchgoing Catholic.8 The press did not help the cause, as it described the work as “smeared” with dung, when in actuality, the pieces of dung were painted with resin and artfully arranged on the painting in a visibly calculated fashion.

Giuliani threatened to pull funding for the museum unless it removed the offending pieces and indeed did withhold the museum’s operating subsidy, and began working toward removing the board of trustees from their posts and evicting the museum from its location. In response, the museum sued Giuliani for violations of the First Amendment, which prompted a countersuit. Both parties came to an agreement and the city was ordered to fund a $5.8 million renovation project at the museum and warned to never again threaten to deny the museum funding.9

Religious iconography has been used in art for ages - but when the traditions of that iconography are injected with visceral confessionalism or a postmodern multiculturalism, as we have seen with the works of Serrano, Ofili and Wojnarowicz, it can be a different story. It is important to remember to preserve the status of art as a bastion of free expression, whether that expression involves abjection and transgression, or faith and waterlilies.


1.      Philip Kennicott, “'Fire' man: Wojnarowicz, censored by Smithsonian, sounded an alarm in dire times,” Washington Post, December 10, 2010, accessed June 28,2011,

2.      (No Author Specified),”Smithsonian Q&A Regarding the "Hide/Seek" Exhibition,” National Portrait Gallery website,  December 7, 2010, accessed June 28, 2011,

3.      Martin Gould, “ Protesters Destroy Notorious 'Artwork' That Defiled Christ” April 19, 2011, accessed June 28, 2011,

4.      Grant H Kester Art, activism, and oppositionality: essays from Afterimag, Duke University Press. p. 126. 1998.

5.       Eleanor  Heartney,  "A consecrated critic — profile of popular television art critic Sister Wendy Beckett", Art in America, July 1998, accessed June 28, 2011,

6.      (No Author Specified) “Two works, including “Piss Christ” destroyed in a museum in Avignon, France-info, April 17, 2011, accessed June 28, 2011,

7.      Theodore Dalrymple,  "Trash, Violence, and Versace: But Is It Art?", City Journal, Winter 1998, accessed June 28, 2011,

8.      Carol Vogel, “Chris Ofili: British Artist Holds Fast to His Inspiration” The New York Times, September 28, 1999, accessed June 28, 2011,

9.      (No Author Specified) “The Giuliani-Brooklyn Museum of Art Feud,”  Global, April 3, 2000, accessed June 28, 2011,

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I love to read about linguistics, behavioral economics, theory and philosophy. I listen to music some might call outdated, write satirical and high testosterone plays, consume too much caffeine and ruthlessly defend modern and contemporary art.