Art is subjective, always; as either creative statement, beauty captured, or naked provocation. Its ability to both calm the soul or drive a conservative human crazy is well documented, whether with Picasso’s Guernica, Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotic photography, or the irreverent street art of Banksy.
You can now add to that list painter Michael D’Antuono, whose iconic depiction of Barack Obama in “The Truth” has rankled the Christian Right and the conservative contingent of the Catholic Church, vehemently represented by Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
Though “The Truth” is currently in exhibition at the Bunker Hill Community Art College Art Gallery in Boston as part of D’Antuono’s politically themed show, “Artists on the Stump – the Road to the Whitehouse,” the piece was originally intended to debut years earlier. From the Huffington Post:
The painting ”was “meant to be displayed as an art installation in New York’s Union Square Park on President Obama’s 100th day in office,” according to D’Antuono’s website. “The painting was to be in a mock voting booth for people to view privately and then interviewed to express their own views.”
D’Antuono said he received 4,000 emails “mostly from the irate Christian Right who misinterpreted the art as blasphemy and were anything but Christian-like.” He canceled the event, a decision he now regrets.
The image of the President in a Jesus-like pose, wrapped in a crown of thorns, arms outstretched in front of the Presidential seal, certainly does what art is meant to do – elicit emotional and stir controversy – but the artist feels critics who’ve labeled his work “blasphemous” are missing the point. As reported by Todd Stearns at Fox News:
“The crucifixion of the president was meant metaphorically. My intent was not to compare him to Jesus.”
“I always regretted cancelling my exhibit in New York because I feel my First Amendment rights should override someone’s hurt feelings. We should celebrate the fact that we live in a country where we are given the freedom to express ourselves.”
D’Antuono blamed the controversy on conservative media “trying to promote the idea that liberals believe the president to literally be our savior.”
But it’s not just conservative media that’s all in an uproar. Bill Donohue has taken it on with the verve of a crusader. Known for his outspoken and often extremist Catholic views, this is the guy who took umbrage with George W. Bush’s Christmas cards because they used the word “holiday” instead of “Christmas,” the guy who practically gets into fisticuffs with Bill Maher whenever he’s on the show; the guy who told Larry King that the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church could be blamed on gay priests, claiming they “could not be considered pedophiles because most of the offenses involved “postpubescent” boys (defined in the interview as boys 12 years old or older) and were thus “homosexual” acts. [Wikipedia]
Yeah, that guy.
And he’s a also the guy on a mission when it comes to public works of art. More from his Wikipedia page:
On November 30, 2010, Donohue, speaking on behalf of the Catholic League denounced a piece of video art entitled “A Fire in My Belly” at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery. The piece, by artist David Wojnarowicz, contains a scene with a crucifix covered in ants. Donohue called the video “hate speech” and demanded that the Smithsonian remove it from the exhibit. The Smithsonian acquiesced to Donohue’s demand and “A Fire in My Belly” was removed. During an interview with National Public Radio about the incident, Donohue questioned the legitimacy of the Smithsonian’s status as a tax-supported institution:
“Why should the working class pay for the leisure of the elite when in fact one of the things the working class likes to do for leisure is to go to professional wrestling? And if I suggested we should have federal funds for professional wrestling to lower the cost of the ticket, people would think I’m insane. I don’t go to museums any more than any Americans do.”
Clearly he’s no rookie when it comes to the “art” of censorship. When it comes to “The Truth,” specifically, he’s outraged at what he interprets as an attack on Christianity and a “cheap political statement.” This, from a manifesto he recently posted on the Catholic League website:
“What makes this display so interesting is the flat denial of truth by so many artists and academicians, as well as their irrepressible hostility to Christianity. Yet when it comes to their savior, President Obama, they not only pivot, they proselytize.
“’The Truth’ was supposed to make its debut on April 29, 2009 in New York’s Union Square; it was to commemorate the first 100 days of Obama’s presidency. But D’Antuono withdrew his masterpiece after being hit with angry e-mails. Now he is back, apparently thinking that after Obama won reelection, the time is ripe to witness his crucifixion. Imagine if his God had lost what our Christmas gift would look like.
“It is one thing for the Italian nativity scene builder Ferrigno to include Obama as a figurine in this year’s crèche (it has regularly featured public persons such as Princess Diana), quite another for an angry artist to rip off Christian iconography for the purpose of making a cheap political statement.”
D’Antuono’s inclusion in the federation of the artists denounced by the Bill Donohue and the Right puts him in excellent company. But just as art rebels against the restrictions of doctrine, rigidity and prudishness, the artists crafting that art do the same; rejecting conformity, narrow thinking, and the lack of vision. Despite how Donohue or other doctrinaires of fundamentalist thinking think, we’ll let the artist of this compelling piece describe his own work:
This painting was inspired by watching conflicting reports on the same issues on the different cable newscasts and the effect on their viewers. Peoples’ perceptions of the issues seem to get distorted though their political lenses. People have had drastically different interpretations from this painting. What you see in this painting will be a reflection of your own partisan view and that is precisely the point.
What this writer sees is an iconic figure feeling both the power and pain of his office. The Truth…at least as seen through one set of eyes.