Is Ant Jesus Offensive?

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.

20 thoughts on “Is Ant Jesus Offensive?”

  1. While I don’t have the artiest them self here to tell me what they were thinking, I think the protest is more about implying that Jesus had Aids. Using Jesus’s suffering for your message might be the same as say, Glenn Beck comparing everything to Hitler.

  2. Oh for crying out loud.

    The exhibition, which opened on Oct. 30, addresses issues of sexual and gender identity (from the article cited above).

    There’s your problem right there. As much as the President of the Catholic League would like people to believe that the outcry is about “ants crawling all over the body” of Christ, the issue is actually: gender/sexual identiy exhibit + references to AIDS + Jesus = O NOES! Clearly the unhappiness over the piece has to do with any association (implied or actual) between Catholicism and The Gays. A lovely example of homophobia at its silliest. I’m disappointed in the Smithsonian for caving to pressures to remove the piece.

  3. Thomas Joseph said:

    Only issue is, it’s pretty Catholic to link one’s suffering to Jesus’ own suffering.

    TGIQ said:

    Clearly the unhappiness over the piece has to do with any association (implied or actual) between Catholicism and The Gays.

    These two points outline the essential problem, regardless of whether or not the Culture Warriors are cognizant of them. It’s gotta be psychologically tough to have The Gay Enemy making use of your cultural icons, and even more confusing when done sympathetically.

  4. When I saw this on the news this morning, I must admit I was surprised at the furor the ant-Jesus provoked. I haven’t been able to find the film, but the image used, as myrmecos notes, doesn’t seem very different from much traditional Christian art and especially not what one can see in Latin America. Actually, I wondered if the crucifix used wasn’t a standard religious token from a shop.

    I suppose, since it looks as though the crucifix has been thrown on the ground like trash, that could be offensive. Also, I suppose it is possible that ants are interpreted as a sign of the corruption of the body, which would be theologically offensive.

    But my bet is that a large number of Christians are simply sick and tired of seeing their religion treated abusively and were easily convinced that this was yet another example and one sponsored by a public institution and just before Christmas. That too seems to be what the Smithsonian person is saying in the linked article.

    An alternative hypothesis, and one with lots of supporting data, is that most people find ants and other insects disgusting when crawling on their bodies and think that Jesus would have felt the same way.

    Speaking of bodies – looks like Reubens was feeding steroids to his models in The Raising of the Cross. I think I find the muscular hyperbole in that picture a bit offensive and may write my congressperson.

    1. I think it’s the ants, those Pogos. Having sometimes been closely associated with Christian circles, etc., I think some of the offense is just the ants crawling on Jesus’ body. It is a bit too much realism against the glorified vision that most believers have of the crucifixion. Despite the gore, etc. the ants distract from the focus on Jesus and his suffering. It seems to me, though, that the ants add a good touch of humanity to the crucifixion…that is, in death or dying Jesus was powerless and even ants got to do what they do. But Pogonomyrmex? — that’s the wrong ant if there is any historical aim. Otherwise, I think every one has good points. People are offended for all kinds of reasons. So, just pick your own and join the club.

  5. Myrmecophilous Jesus?? Forget that! I am truly offended that it wasn’t myrmecophilous Virgin of Guadalupe if it is supposed to be in the context of Mexican culture. Screw that artist I say!

    1. Or title for an SF short story. Although, I suppose a virgin birth among the ants wouldn’t be regarded as particularly noteworthy.

      Which reminds me of Michael Bishop’s story “The Gospel According to Gamaliel Crucis” (from 1983)- a race of, essentially, intelligent praying mantises on a distant planet had a “virgin birth” that consisted of an entire egg case, and ended up with a few hundred messiahs running around causing trouble (one of which then came to earth). A side point was that there had been both male and female messiahs, but the males didn’t last very long because they all got eaten during mating season.

    1. I’m ambivalent about the whole issue. I guess that means I’m an atheist.

      But on the list of things I care about, the existence of God(s) sits somewhere between “What’s on Thursday prime time?” and “Which fabric softener should I use?”

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  8. Not offensive but sure ugly. Equally ugly as the traditional crucifix depiction.

    Modern art such as is deprived of all aesthetic values. They are created to shock and troll. Guess they succeeded in doing that.

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