Jesus! Brooklyn Museum stands up to Catholics over ants-on-cross piece

Nude awakening! Brooklyn Museum shows work that was banned in D.C.
Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O. W Gallery, The Fales Library and Special Collections/ New York University

The Brooklyn Museum has not as yet backed down to pressure from the Catholic Church to remove a “sacrilegious” artwork featuring ants crawling on a crucifix from an upcoming exhibit, the museum’s embattled boss said on Wednesday.

Brooklyn Museum Director Arnold Lehman defended the inclusion of late artist David Wojnarowicz’s grainy video, “A Fire in My Belly,” as one of the 105 pieces in the show — even though the same piece had been banned when the exhibition was shown in Washington, D.C. early this year.

“We decided to reconstitute it as originally planned by the curators,” Lehman told the Associated Press. “We haven’t changed the exhibition in any way.”

And a museum source said that Lehman would not alter that decision, despite a letter from Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Brooklyn Diocese that said that the 12-second scene of ants crawling on the Catholic icon would be “offensive to many people of faith.”

DiMarzio called upon the museum’s Board of Directors this week to banish the video from the exhibit.

In doing so, DiMarzio was echoing Congressional Republicans and conservative pundits, who pressured the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery last year to remove the Wojnarowicz video, arguing that it was offensive.

In that case, the Smithsonian capitulated.

But when the Brooklyn Museum announced that it would include the controversial work, art lovers were overjoyed.

“Thank the lord that you live in Brooklyn!” heralded The Brooklyn Paper on Wednesday. “Don’t miss [the exhibit] — and don’t forget to gloat over your DC friends.”

The controversy over the Wojnarowicz piece threatens to overshadow the other 104 artworks in the show, “Hide/ Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” which explores gender and sexuality in contemporary American art. It opens next Friday.

Diocese spokesman Rev. Kieran Harrington commended the museum for its “exploration of despair and suffering” in past exhibits, but also criticized curators for editing the Wojnarowicz video from 12 minutes to four minutes in order to emphasize the parts that the church found objectionable.

“Certainly, the gravity of the work would seem to demand a full viewing of the artists depiction of alienation and suffering,” said Harrington. “So if the gravity of the piece is not what merited inclusion and one can only speculate why the curators would choose to include a sacrilegious clip.”

This isn’t the first time that the Museum has run afoul of god-fearing art critics.

In 1999, then-Mayor Giuliani threatened to cut the Brooklyn Museum’s funding after the museum included a painting of the Virgin Mary dotted with elephant dung and images of genitalia as part of the “Sensation” exhibit of modern British art.

This time, city leaders are standing behind the Brooklyn Museum and rebuking the diocese.

“Men and women fight and die for liberty and freedom — this is censorship!” said Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D–Brooklyn Heights) in a strong rebuke to the Diocese.

And Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio tweeted, “I support their programming and their right to mount controversial exhibits.”

“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the Brooklyn Museum [200 Eastern Pkwy. at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, (718) 638-5000], opens on Nov. 18. Museum is closed Monday and Tuesday. For info, visit www.brooklymuseum.org.

Reach reporter Aaron Short at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-2547.

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