Insulting or Compassionate? Museum of Modern Art Acquires Controversial Ants on Crucifix Video

VIDEO: Artist David Wojnarowicz produced Fire in My Belly in 1987.
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A decision by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to feature a provocative video depicting ants crawling over a likeness of Jesus on a crucifix has once again triggered controversy over freedom of speech and religious insensitivity.

"A Fire in My Belly," by artist David Wojnarowicz, was pulled from the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery last month amid objections from conservative groups, who say the work is insulting and derogatory to Christians and shouldn't be displayed at a museum that's heavily funded by the public.

The Museum of Modern Art, which is a privately funded non-profit organization, acquired the original, 13-minute version and a seven-minute excerpt made by the artist in the mid-1980s.

The controversial video has appeared in exhibits around the country, including at the New Museum in New York last month.

The video went on display at MoMA Thursday and is part of its "Contemporary Art from the Collection" exhibit examining how social and political influences have affected artists' work in modern times.

The video collage by Wojnarowicz, who died of complications from AIDS in 1992, sheds light on a critical topic, MoMA officials say, and is part of the museum's commitment to collecting the artist's work.

"A Fire in My Belly" is the 13th work by Wojnarowicz to be featured at MoMA.

"MoMA has a commitment to artists such as Wojnarowicz who critically engage with difficult and challenging themes and ideas in their work," according to a statement from the museum. "While we respect the diversity of reactions a work of art allows, we are committed to continuing to show David Wojnarowicz's work."

The video is filled with graphic, often dark, images, many of which were filmed during Wojnarowicz's travels to Mexico. The part that has garnered the most controversy is one that shows giant ants crawling on the likeness of Jesus Christ on a crucifix.

Wendy Olsoff, a co-owner of the New York City art gallery that manages Wojnarowicz's work, said the artist frequently used animals and insects to represent metaphors for interactions in human society.

"This was not hate speech," she said. "It's a compassionate look at how we live. He's overlaying the insect world on the human world. ... And he used ants in a series of surreal images, using them on guns, clocks and toy soldiers."

But opponents charge that the video is insulting and mean-spirited.

"The essential objection is that we shouldn't be insulted by people of any group in our society," Catholic League president Bill Donohue said. "I think if they would've put ants running all over the face of Muhammad, I think Muslims would understand, and if you had the ants running all over Martin Luther King, I think blacks would understand.

"Everybody knows this has nothing to do with AIDS or something of that nature. This has something to do with insulting Christians," Donohue added.

The controversy surrounding the video was so strong that it led the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to pull the video from its exhibit last month, marking the first time the museum has taken such a step.

Smithsonian Action Sparked Debate on Censorship

At the Smithsonian, Wojnarowicz's video was part of the first national art exhibit of works featuring sexual orientation and gender identity in American art, which also featured works by Georgia O'Keefe, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Annie Leibowitz.

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