Ants are in the news today.
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?
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.