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'Offensive' Art | Globe Editorial

The ICA begins a conversation

December 20, 2010

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THE INSTITUTE of Contemporary Art deserves credit for screening David Wojnarowicz’s “Fire in My Belly’’ two weeks after the National Portrait Gallery buckled to pressure and pulled the video from an exhibition focused on the history of gay and lesbian portraiture in America.

One of the work’s reoccurring images — a crucifix covered with ants — irked some conservative critics, including the cultural watchdogs at the Catholic League, right-wing commentators Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, and Republican members of Congress including the Majority Leader-elect Eric Cantor and House Speaker-designate John Boehner, who used the controversy to threaten the Smithsonian’s taxpayer funding.

In response, the ICA and other museums across the country have begun exhibiting the video, which is meant to reflect Wojnarowicz’s feelings after the painful AIDS-related death of a close friend in the 1980s. The video is wrenching to watch, but it isn’t blasphemous. And, as the Globe’s visual arts critic Sebastian Smee pointed out, Christian tradition itself is filled with similarly “base and wretched imagery.’’

Critics of the work should voice their concern without calling for its removal. The upside of their overreaction, however, is that more people will be exposed to Wojnarowicz’s video, and that a thoughtful conversation about the value of art in the American experience is now taking place.