As someone who has been in the crosshairs of the Catholic League not once, but twice, I have given a lot of thought to the issue now facing the National Portrait Gallery. There was a lot of chaos in my life during these moments, and I never really had the time to gather my thoughts (because we were too busy installing alarm systems and removing my address from various sources to protect my family from the threats of “Christians”.)
Artists develop a visual vocabulary, often made up of their own life experiences. Yes, there are a few (in my opinion) shallow artists who will desecrate random symbols simply for shock value, but the majority of the people who get in trouble for using Christian imagery in their work were raised Christian themselves.... which is why the images hold such power for them. As someone who was raised Catholic, attended Catholic Schools for 12 years. and stared at all the religious pictures in my house while growing up, it would be absurd if religious references DID NOT come up in my work. No one owns the symbolism of the Catholic Church, it is my symbolism too. The Catholic Church would like to control how their icons are used, and by whom, but they do not have that right. Asking a Christian artist to refrain from using images that are burned into their brains is like asking a French person to refrain from speaking French.
More importantly, if the good people who are offended by this type of work took even a moment to try to understand what the borrowed symbol means in the surrounding context, I am convinced that they would often agree with what the artist is trying to say. Instead, the second an icon is spotted in a way that seems threatening, the switch is tripped. Like a stubborn child who views things as either black or white, there is no dialog, no discussion, but the planting of feet in a constant pre-determined stance. I remember an exchange of emails that we had, when I tried to explain to you that one of my images was an image of reverence to me, and your response was “That’s what you artists always say!” That’s what we always say because it is true. I blame this gap in understanding on the lack of arts education in our schools... we are growing into a nation where a majority of people do not understand the meaning of the word “metaphor”.
The particular video in question was made at the height of the AIDS crisis by a gay man and gifted artist who lost the love of his life, and then succumbed to the illness himself at an early age. At that time (and even to this day), Christians were saying that these people who suffered and died got what they deserved. The treatment of these people as though they were unclean is not unlike the way that lepers were treated in the Bible, that is, until Jesus approached them without fear and came to their aid.
Jesus, who taught us to love, forgive, accept and help one another. Jesus, who said “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Jesus, who associated with all manner of people that society did not deem acceptable and came to their defense. Jesus, who asked us to treat others as we would like to be treated.
Most of these objectionable symbols, including the one in the video removed from the National Portrait Gallery, are used in the art to address the vast disconnect between the teachings of Christianity and the actions of its present day members, as evidenced in (among other things) the shameless treatment of AIDS victims in this country.
It is often said that artists create these controversial works "just to get attention". It’s true, they are trying to get your attention.... not to anger you or wound your sensibilities, but to make you think, and to open the dialog... not about art, but about the truly tragic and vital issues that the work is about. Perhaps that is why it has been so important for you to shut them down.