Culture at the Crossroads
Art for Art's Sake
I don't think that Wojnarowicz's work is likely to be a classic. It certainly carries an excess of meaning; otherwise people wouldn't be any more interested in it than the average anti-Christian graffiti. It is certainly not the case that every Christian in the world will be equally offended; Christian respondents to the Washington Post story indicate as much. I suspect that at this moment what is giving the work legs is precisely the fact that it is now an object of complaint by a group claiming religious authority, and so it sets off the usual "censorship" and "religious bigotry" bells in opposing camps. To be frank, I do find ants crawling over a crucifix pretty offensive, but there are plenty of other things I as a Catholic find offensive that I simply don't wish to call attention to.
That some art is offensive to people doesn't surprise me. There are going to be constantly re-drawn lines of offense in the public square; the one important thing is to insure that the conversation keeps going, and that tolerated offenses don't degenerate into consistently hateful speech-acts. I am concerned about hate speech, both toward Catholics (see this book by Philip Jenkins and this book by Mark Massa) as well as toward other groups, and so I understand Donohue's ire.
But what I hope does not get lost in the art debates, is what the DaVinci installation reminds us of: that all art draws meaning from the fact that it is embedded within a long conversation about what is meaningful to a society, to a culture, and that recovery and creative re-appropriation of classics is part of making a good community. This recovery reminds us that we are not the first people to ask questions about meaning; we are not the only ones to seek beauty; we are not necessarily the most adept people in history in deciding what a good society looks like. Our great-great-great-great (....) grandparents may, in truth, have been more loving, more forgiving, more humble, more generous people. On the other hand, maybe not -- but in either case, paying attention to the history of our attempts at culture is a worthy task.
Learn your Latin and Greek; study the Bible; read Dante and Cervantes, Austen and Woolf. Then read the news, listen to the poor and outcast, and make art.
Tim Muldoon holds a Ph.D. in Catholic systematic theology and is an award-winning author and Catholic theologian of the new evangelization.