The Smithsonian Institute has been going through some controversy recently. They currently have an exhibit called Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. Surprisingly, the controversy isn’t so much around the overall theme of the exhibit which is the role of sexuality and gender in art. Given that there is a lot of content dealing with homosexuality, you’d think that there would be a lot of spark around it. However, it was saved by an even larger fire around one individual piece that has since been removed.
Fire in My Belly is the offending piece. This four minute video is provocative. There is mature content, so be advised if you decide to watch.
With images ranging from ants crawling on a crucifix, a mouth being sewn shut and masturbation as well as many fire images all overlaid with an eerie soundtrack featuring an insistent, verging on hysterical voice repeating “unclean” there is plenty for people to object to, if they choose.
Nothing much new here. Art has been censored since the beginning of time. I can just imagine a critic looking at a cave drawing and grunting, “No, Grog, no genital on mammoth. Children be scarred. Fix now.” The thing is, art is about conversation and if it doesn’t create conversation, why bother?
I can’t completely say I’m a fan of Fire in My Belly. I find it disturbing and that makes me think about. In that sense, I am a fan. Art that creates no emotion is of no interest to me whatsoever. Whether I experience a warm sensation or a churning of my stomach, I want to experience. That’s why art exists.
One definition of art is “the creation of beautiful or significant things”. Note the word SIGNIFICANT. It’s easy to appreciate art that makes us go “oh, pretty”. It’s a little harder to appreciate that which gives us the willies. Yet, that is what sticks in our heads.
Earlier this year I heard a piece called The Murder of Crows. It’s a haunting spoken piece with a room set up with chairs, 98 speakers and a gramophone horn. Even without visuals, my boyfriend and I were riveted by the piece. The fact that I can remember what it was called is an indicator of the impact it made on me. On the other hand, there is currently an exhibit at the Alberta Gallery of Art which I’ve seen twice featuring some incredible landscapes, including some Group of Seven pieces. I quite like a number of them but can’t remember what any of them are called.
The great thing about people who shun, censor or protest against any type of art is that they actually give it more weight and attention. I may never have heard of Fire in My Belly if it weren’t for those who loudly took offense and had it banned. I always wonder why people who don’t like things don’t just keep their mouths shut. Less people will pay attention to it when that happens than when you make a loud noise. Case in point, the number of people who saw the substandard 1988 The Last Temptation of Christ. Now, with the resources available online, the chances of even more people seeing what you are making all the noise about are even higher. Hello youtube!
In this case, there were some people who believed so strongly that Fire in My Belly be seen that they camped out at the Smithsonian with their laptops and smart phones to show it to people anyway. Bravo! Sorry, to all you deeply offended folk, your plan backfired in more ways than we could possibly have imagined back in the The Last Temptation of Christ days.
Like the rest of life, we all have our opinions and we are most certainly entitled to them. The problem always comes when we try to make everyone else feel the way we do. The biggest joy of being human is being individual. I have a Nelson Mandela quote hanging on my wall. “When we lose the right to be different, we lose the right to be free.”
Those who try to impose their opinions on others are, in their own little way, trying to usurp the freedom of us all. Continue to have and express your thoughts. They are of value whether I, or anyone else, agree. It is in the expression that we reveal our beauty and the beauty of the human race in general.
That is art, my friends.