My Tuesday Column is up over on the home page. Today I am looking at the “Ants on Jesus” story, and the reaction of Washington Post Art Critic Blake Gopnik to poor old Norman Rockwell, whose “art” he hates. (Gopnik likes the scare quotes. He uses them to describe the “hard work” of realism, too!)
While I happen to agree with the notion that art, as free speech, should not be censored, I could not help but be struck by the fact that Gopnik is so out of touch with the “common man” he does not even realize that what he ridicules is a depiction of precisely what he himself has freely done: stood alone to make his argument, without fear of reprisal.
Gopnik really does hate Rockwell’s art, too. He goes after it with a lot of scare quotes, and jeers at the “hard work” of realist painting, which apparently is less arduous than laying a crucifix on the ground and opening an ant farm upon it. His real wrath, however, is reserved for the content of Rockwell’s painting:
Rockwell’s vision of “Freedom of Speech,” . . . doesn’t invoke a communist printing his pamphlets or an atheist on a soapbox. It gives us a town hall meeting of almost interchangeable New Englanders, no doubt agreeing to disagree about something as divisive as the rates for those new parking meters. For this, the Founders risked powder and ball?
Well, actually, Mr. Gopnik, yes. The truth is, the freedom of a small-town man—one so unremarkable as to be “interchangeable” with any other—to stand up amongst his neighbors and air his thoughts without fear of reprisal is precisely what the Founders risked everything for. They lived not in a world of expansive travel and myriad, largely-anonymous media, but in places where people knew each other for all of their lives, and interacted with each other every day.
The Founders understood that it was a singular and authentic act of bravery for a man or woman to stand amid such neighbors and opine against the conventional wisdom or the zeitgeist. They understood that the ability and willingness of one mainstream, rather conventional person to stand against a tide is as edgy as it gets; it is a demonstration of individual courage that extrapolates outward; it is the foundation that supports the freedom of the “communist printing his pamphlets or an atheist on a soapbox,” paintings of which, by 21st century trends, would—ironically—be considered less courageous or unusual than Rockwell’s vision.
Perhaps Gopnik simply can’t see himself in the common man of Rockwell’s painting because, well…the man is so common! Or perhaps Gopnik doesn’t really know who and what he hates, after all, and he–being gentry– cannot see the quiet heroism of the yahoo!
UPDATE: By happy co-incidence Tim Muldoon is also writing about the Smithsonian, and Hide/Seek, but he brings DaVinci into it:
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.
Read it all here