Chicago | Los Angeles | Miami | New York | San Francisco | Santa Fe
Amsterdam | Berlin | Brussels | London | Paris | São Paulo | Toronto | China | India | Worldwide
New York

Radical Empathy
by Kara Q. Smith





David Wojnarowicz’s piece, entitled A Fire in My Belly, was removed by museum staff from its exhibition, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC on December 1, 2010 after members of Congress and the Catholic League expressed objections to the video.

The world lost David Wojnarowicz in 1992 to AIDS. December 1st was World AIDS Day. In response to this censorship, a panel of curators, researchers, activists and art historians came together for a screening of “Fire in My Belly” at SF Camerawork in San Francisco. Joining the discussion was Jonathan Katz, co-curator of the exhibition in question.

There were introductions and discussion. Pieces from the exhibition were presented to us in slide format. It was described as a joyous collection of portraits, mapping an important heritage of queer desire in the avant-garde art world since the 1880s. There was that great photo of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar. There were the Mapplethorpes. Oh, the conversations these portraits must have on the walls of the gallery. We learned about Wojnarowicz and his multi-media practice, about how he liked to use affect as a political tool in his work. We sent an IM to Jonathan Katz, telling him we would be ready in twenty minutes.

Then we watched the film, the silent version, it lasted 13 ½ minutes. Filmed in Mexico in 1987, the melancholic montage of clips emanated what Jonathan Katz referred to as radical empathy shared across cultural boundaries.

Honestly, I barely noticed the Catholic iconography, the few seconds of ants crawling over a crucifix that has been dissected from the film by the media, cut into a motionless pixilated icon and distributed as religious blasphemy. But discussing the content of the 13 ½ minutes of footage is not what was pertinent about this evening at SF Camerawork.

A melee of discussion about representational politics, AIDS, activism and museum structure ensued. A most critical question, I thought, came from a gentleman sitting to my left. He asked, “Is it time for museums to eschew government funding?” To which Jonathan Katz replied, no. Museums function as a public service and during this time when the museum world is becoming so integrated with the art market – collectors’ museums, Jeffrey Deitch – this is a momentous time to encourage government funding for the arts.

The discourse of classrooms and lecture halls was now effusing through the room in real time. Two decades after the censorship of Robert Mapplethorpe and the controversy of Andres Serrano, it was disheartening to be discussing societal homophobia and repression of free speech. It was enraging to think of the way we marginalize those who are suffering or infected to sanitize our existence, to know that AIDS is still an epidemic affecting primarily disenfranchised populations. I believe this is the affect Wojnarowicz meant to imply.

- Kara Q. Smith


To view A Fire in My Belly, please visit PPOW Gallery:

To organize a screening of A Fire in My Belly, please visit:

(Top Image: Screenshot of

Posted by Kara Q. Smith on 12/13/10

Related articles:

20100901065021-photograph fire ,wot fire ?
It is a sad comment in the 'land of the free ' where censorship still prevails from a minority, wielding power because of offence to their beliefs. What happened to freedom of expression? the right of every one. Artists are there to provoke new ways of thought, a new cognition, a new challenge; without this freedom in any area, politics included; society would stagnate and collapse. We have just had all the provocation from the Muslim world over this same issue; is it different because it now offends a different religious group, a western religion,is religion above reproach? Admittedly the Crusifixion is an easy target, but any comment by anyone will offend someone somewhere, are we all so delicate and sensitive that no one anywhere may voice an opinion. To ban or censure works of art, good ,bad or indifferent is an affront to the artist-- have the nazis' been forgotten so soon ?

Copyright © 2006-2013 by ArtSlant, Inc. All images and content remain the © of their rightful owners.