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.
The video drew sharp criticism from conservative groups after publication of a CNS news service article with the headline: "Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus, Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts."
Donohue, who led the protests, said it was "doubly egregious" that the work was being featured at a museum funded partially by the public.
"Incivility is wrong. It's doubly wrong when it's funded by taxpayers," he said.
Several Republican leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said they would examine taxpayer funding for the Smithsonian in the wake of the controversial display.
"Absolutely, we should look at their funds," Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, told Fox News last month. "If they've got money to squander like this -- of a crucifix being eaten by ants, of Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, men in chains, naked brothers kissing -- then I think we should look at their budget."
While the exhibition itself was privately funded, taxpayer dollars are used for general operations of the museum facilities and its staff.
The Smithsonian Institution received $636 million in federal funding in 2010. The National Portrait Gallery received $5.8 million.
In an e-mail to his staff, Smithsonian Institution president Wayne Clough suggested that he pulled the video because he didn't want controversy about the video to distract from the rest of the exhibition.
"I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious," National Portrait Gallery director Mark Sullivan said in a statement. "In fact, the artist's intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. It was not the museum's intention to offend."
The removal of Wojnarowicz's work was unprecedented. The gallery has never before pulled a piece out of an exhibition because of public outcry, according to Smithsonian Institution spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas.
She said that prior to publication of the CNS article, the museum had received no complaints about the video, which she described as a small part of the show.
"It was a small screen in an alcove of the exhibit, and you had to push a button on the screen to activate it," St. Thomas said.
Olsoff, the New York gallery co-owner, called removal of the video "censorship."
"This is about something more than David Wojnarowicz," she said. "It's a knee jerk reaction in response to attempts by the Catholic League to draw attention to what they're doing."