As prelude to a story we have planned for our Dec. 16 After Hours section, here’s a link to a Washington Post report on a controversy that’s currently raging in the U.S. over the decision of the Smithsonian Museum to bow to pressure from Republican leaders (spurred by criticism from the Catholic League) to remove from display David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video Fire in My Belly which contains a short segment depicting ants crawling on a crucifix.
Wojnarowicz (pictured left) died of HIV/AIDS in 1992, and the video was intended as a comment on the epidemic. After viewing it on YouTube, here’s some thoughts on it’s potential meaning: yes, the crucifix is central to Christian iconography. But in a broader context, it can be read as a near universal symbol in Western society for suffering and persecution.
In the first decade of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in particular, it was focussed primarily in the gay community. The disease caused enormous suffering through the opportunistic diseases that men became susceptible to when their immune systems were compromised — diseases like meningitis, pneumonia, tuberculosis, kaposi’s sarcoma and many more that ravage the body and mind of infected individuals and ultimately cause their deaths.
It’s also true that due to rampant homophobia, gays were largely left to fend for themselves when the virus first hit the community. Governments and health agencies were slow to direct resources to combat the disease and promote public awareness. Some prominent individuals and organizations even described HIV/AIDS as God’s revenge on gays or otherwise indicated that men who became infected were morally deficient and therefore deserved their fate. That fits my definition of persecution.
Central to the crucifix is the image of a male body crisis. As for the ants crawling over the crucifix, there is a medical term called formication which describes the sensation of insects crawling on or under the skin (it’s derrived from formica, which is Latin for ant).
Drug addicts and alcoholics who are in withdrawl often experience the sensation. But it can also occur through diseases like skin cancer, syphillis, herpes zoster and diabetes. If Wojnarowicz, or someone close to him who was also infected with HIV/AIDS, contracted one of those illnesses, it may be that the ants were meant to represent the torment that they experienced.
If you hate art, you’ll just say I’m full of shit. If you have an open mind, hopefully you’ll look at the video in a different light than the people who called for its removal from the Smithsonian.