The New York-based Catholic League, a self-described civil rights organisation at the forefront of the fight to remove David Wojnarowicz's video A Fire in My Belly from the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, has changed tactics this week. Originally objecting to the video that League president William Donohue described as “anti-Christian”, the organisation now says that museums should have all federal funding pulled because “they cater to the affluent and well educated rather than to the working class”.
The controversy surrounding Wojnarowicz's video echoes the furore that erupted in New Zealand in 1998 when Te Papa Tongarewa the Museum of New Zealand presented Tania Kovats' Virgin in a Condom in the Pictura Britannica exhibition. New Zealand's Catholic community was outraged by the small statuette of the Virgin Mary sheathed in a condom. This followed the 1997 closure of the Andres Serrano exhibition at Melbourne's National Gallery of Victoria after a second attack on the artist's controversial work Piss Christ, death threats to staff and an alleged concern for a Rembrandt exhibition that was on at the time.
The Catholic League's latest move (going after the museum project) also echoes the tactics of Catholics and evangelical Christians in New Zealand who questioned the national museum's double standards, pointing out that Te Papa (Maori for Our Place) had engaged in a lengthy process of consultation with Iwi aimed at developing a bicultural museum, but was unwilling to do the same for other communities of interest. They said the museum took great care to observe Maori spiritual values but ran roughshod over Christian values.
Te Papa officials dug in, refusing to budge in the face of daily protests outside the museum and a 33 thousand-signature petition demanding the removal of Virgin in a Condom. But while the art world supported the museum's refusal to bow to pressure, many also felt that by its unwillingness to enter into an open debate Te Papa lost an early opportunity to foreground the museum's role as a forum – a place where ideas could be presented, tested and contested.
The trans-Tasman responses in the late 90s (closing an exhibition in Melbourne v. an unproductive stand-off in Wellington) were less than ideal so it'll be interesting to see how the current controversy generated by Wojnarowicz's searing meditation on aspects of the AIDS pandemic plays out in the States.
This link takes you to a Backchat panel discussion screened by TVNZ in 1998 on Virgin in a Condom, the sacred and the profane, and art museums and controversy.
Images from the top: David Wojnarowicz, A Fire in My Belly (1987), video still; Tania Kovats, Virgin in a Condom (1992); Andres Serrano, Piss Christ (1989)