Ants are in the news today.

Pogonomyrmex ants co-star with Jesus in “A Fire in My Belly” at the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Institution has a new exhibit, “Hide/Seek”, that includes a short film of a tiny Jesus statue crawling with ants. Apparently the artist was exploring the angst of HIV infection in the context of Mexican culture*, or some such.

An impressive wave of public protest followed, and this morning the video was pulled. Seems people take easy offense at myrmecophilous Jesus.

I find the outcry puzzling. The point of crucifixes in general is to depict Christ’s suffering. Not just a gentle reminder, mind you. They are an in-your-face rendering of blood, guts, anguish, and pain. Jesus was beaten, spat upon, tortured, mocked, summarily nailed to a log, and strung up for an excruciating death by suffocation. If that wasn’t enough, then he was speared.

It isn’t as though Christian art tip-toes around this imagery, either. Christian- and especially Catholic- iconography has a distinguished tradition of graphically exploring the crucifixion.

Sometimes, “acceptable” Christian art is explicitly gruesome.

So, what is wrong with Ant Jesus?

thou shalt not mix thy savior with harvester ants?

As I understand it, “A Fire in My Belly” is about suffering from AIDS in deeply Catholic Mexico. Although unconventional, the piece is squarely in the tradition of Christian art- the crucifix as a medium for anguish- rather than a desecration of it.

update: Andrew Sullivan makes the same point:

The whole video incorporates the image of Jesus as a dying, tortured man like those with AIDS: “unclean” as the audio shrieks over the image, rejected, covered by insects. It splices that image with grotesque attempts to sew a loaf of bread back together, to sew a human being’s lips back together, along with desperate images of fire and decay. We are looking at the hysterical images of a dying man suddenly surrounded by the dying, overcome by the attempt to sew life back together. To see a rejected Jesus left on the cross and on the ground to be covered by ants, is, in this context, clearly neither offensive nor heresy; it’s orthodoxy, for Pete’s sake, with the death of Jesus one of countless images of suffering and isolation.

*incidentally, the ants used in the film are Pogonomyrmex harvester ants in the barbatus species complex. These are native to a part of the world where Catholic imagery is especially heavy.