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Brooklyn Museum to display video criticized as anti-Christian

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Brooklyn Museum said a controversial video artwork of ants crawling on a crucifix will be displayed this week despite lawmakers' complaints that it is anti-Christian and may endanger the institute's public funding.

The images appear for roughly 10 seconds in a four-minute-long edit of the film "A Fire in My Belly." It was made in the late 1980s by the American artist David Wojnarowicz, who died in 1992 from an AIDS-related illness.

The museum said the artwork is "an expression of the artist's outrage at indifference to human suffering during the early years of the AIDS crisis."

Outrage caused the video to be withdrawn from a November 2010 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, a Smithsonian museum in Washington, after Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, described it as anti-Christian "hate speech."

A version of the artwork was subsequently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The Brooklyn Museum, scheduled to exhibit the video starting this Friday, said it would go ahead with its plans despite strong opposition from the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and some lawmakers.

"This is not art, this is Christian-bashing," James Molinaro, the Staten Island Borough President, said in a letter sent on Monday evening to Arnold Lehman, the museum's director.

"This is an outrageous use of taxpayer money by the nation's second-largest art museum and an obvious attempt to offend Christians."

The letter was co-signed by Michael Grimm, a Republican congressman from New York, and five other state and city legislators from New York's Staten Island.

Andrew Lanza, a Republican state senator who also co-signed the letter, called for a boycott of the museum and the resignation of its director, and said the museum's public funding should be withdrawn.

The Brooklyn Museum was the target of similar complaints in 1999, when then New York City Mayor Rudoph Giuliani attempted to have its public funding withdrawn over a painting of the Virgin Mary by British artist Chris Ofili, which included elephant dung and pictures of naked buttocks.

As in 1999, the museum was resolute this week, saying Wojnarowicz's film will be among many in the exhibit "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture". The show explores the role of sexual identity in modern art, and features many works by "often-marginalized" gay and lesbian artists, the museum said.

"We strongly encourage anyone who has concerns about Hide/Seek to visit the museum and view it in person," the museum said in a statement.

Molinaro, the Staten Island Borough President, has not seen the work in full, nor does he plan to, a spokeswoman said.

Jonathan Katz, a professor of visual studies at SUNY, Buffalo, and a co-curator of the exhibition, dismissed criticism by those who had not seen the film as "intellectually bankrupt." He said the work belongs to a centuries-old artistic tradition of using the imagery of Jesus Christ's crucifixion as a metaphor for human suffering.

"What gets lost in all of this brouhaha is how thoroughly informed he is by a Catholic iconographic tradition and how he is reinvigorating it to describe new social realities," Katz said of the artist in an interview. "This is a work of art of great complexity and sensitivity."

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)

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