On November 30th, 2010, the art world recoiled as the news spread that the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG), under the orders of Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, had succumbed to pressure from the Catholic League and Republican members of the House of Representatives to remove an artwork by David Wojnarowicz from the NPG’s exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture”. The artwork had been up a month before it became the highest-profile example of government censorship of the arts in the United States in the last few years. The threat of a revived Culture War loomed over many heads.
As such, the effects are going to be felt for a long time by the public and institution alike. There have been several results from this act of censorship. First and foremost, the censorship re-affirmed a contentious relationship between art, and the group of people that the art supposedly represents, and the government, which represents those same people. This event effectively reduced this contentious relationship to a matter of money and political power. As John Boehner’s spokesman Kevin Smith said prior to the removal, "Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January when the new majority in the House moves [in]." Conversely, the event raised the awareness of many to the current schisms in American identity and even prompted the Museum of Modern Art, New York, to acquire the video for its collection. This is the silvery lining a very gray cloud.
To be clear, this event represents a serious breach of the trust between the people of the United States and the cultural institutions affiliated with our government. More than this, it was an assault on the dignity of GLBTQ communities and their right to be represented in the National Portrait Gallery. According to the NPG’s website they represent all Americans, “through the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the American story.” So let us get to know those “villains” who advocated for censorship.
The Catholic League has been around since 1973 and is dedicated to “defend[ing] the right of Catholics – lay and clergy alike – to participate in American public life without defamation or discrimination… motivated by the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment ... to safeguard both the religious freedom rights and the free speech rights of Catholics whenever and wherever they are threatened." The Catholic League is headed up by Bill Donohue who is perhaps best known to the public from South Park’s “Fantastic Easter Special.” Donohue is a righteous bigot, using his position as the head of an anti-defamation league to defame, sow mistrust and basically practice ideals and morals opposite to those he professes. He’s just your run-of-the-mill hypocrite but with a podium. In a New York Times article by Dave Itzkoff on the removal of the video, the author quotes Donohue as saying, “I’m not going to buy the argument that this is some statement about some poor guy dying of AIDS. Was this supposed to be a Christmas present to Catholics?”
That was the preachy part of this article, now let me address the work of art at the center of it all: David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in my Belly. Chicago has the opportunity to check out the controversial film at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum. On display in the Smart’s rear A/V corner room until the end of this week (February 6th) the 20-minute, 2-part silent video plays on loop. A Fire in My Belly has been edited into several versions at this point in time, at the Smart it is comprised of the thirteen-minute version of A Fire in My Belly proper and the appended seven-minute A Fire in My Belly (Excerpt). It is in this last excerpt that the now infamous image of a crucifix crawling with ants flashes across the screen. Significantly it is between alternating shots of Wojnarowicz sewing, either a loaf of bread or his lips, together with red string. A poignant commentary on the state of the AIDS crisis in the late ‘80s, referencing the ACT UP group’s famous slogan “Silence=Death,” the image of the artist with lips sewn shut is one of his most well-known works. In fact, the weeks following the censorship of Wojnarowicz, images like the one above were circulating Facebook and blogs in solidarity with the artist and his work. Protesters have appeared at rallies carrying the image as a sign or wearing it as a mask.
Using artistic techniques already common to the medium of video in the 1980s, Wojnarowicz created a silent pastiche that ruminates over identity and memory in a boiling pot of frustrated pain and desire. Spectacle itself and the spectacle of fighting (from cockfighting to bullfighting and even some Lucha Libre-style wrestling) seem to be a mainstay, the arc of each fight supplants what would have been the narrative. Between images of circuses and street performers, animals rip each other apart in calm combat. It’s as if Wojnarowicz is telling us that the fight is methodical, destructive, but on a course – the spectacle is just a dressing on the battles for life and death as they progress toward the end.
Shortly before the infamous ants-on-a-crucifix scene, Wojnarowicz himself begins sewing together a loaf of bread with a thick red string. The video then cuts to hands pushing a needle through a set of lips, that same red string following the needle. Dia de Los Muertos imagery begins to interject itself and then a close-up of a “blinking Jesus” picture, blinking slowly, eerily. Some of you may have encountered the “blinking Jesus,” we had one when I was growing up, it was sent out in evangelical materials. It was a card with one of those hologram plastic coatings. It appears to blink, coming “alive” as you shifted the card in the light.
And then there it is, ants crawling on what strongly appears to be a candy crucifix baking in the sun the day after Dia de los Muertos. Yup. A candy crucifix. While it’s difficult to discern that this is a candy cross specifically except by seeing the video in-person, and others have described it as plastic, it would be in line with the previous Dia de los Muertos imagery. As some may know, an aspect of the celebrations is the use of elaborate confections and candies that are often made in the shape of crucifixes or, more commonly, skulls, which also appear in the video. These are offered at graves and left there. Ants come. Whether or not the '80s cross was plastic or candy this contextualization seems to have been completely lost to the critics of the work, let alone the brilliant and provocative evocation of the more cerebral, uncanny horror of the ants that accompanies the most saccharine of symbols, a candy crucifix in the context of Wojnarowicz film. Even a symbol of resurrection and salvation succumbs to Earthly degeneration. It’s bold and frank and obviously grating to those with a certain temperament, but that was and is its purpose. Art finds its potency in its ability to reshape thought and should never be censored for it.
There’s nothing inflammatory here that is not intentionally so. Art is a critical practice; it is reflective upon its environment and as such it is a vital aspect of society. Without art, society can lose sight of itself. Art is in many ways the conscience of an increasingly secular public. It is, above all, a fundamental right under the First Amendment.
Boehner and Donohue, I’m sure, were less concerned about the more veiled representations of homosexuality present in the gallery than this representation of homosexuality which portrays a visceral and personal representation of Wojnarowicz’s experience with the public perception of his sexual identity and the issues surrounding homosexuality in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, than does Annie Leibowitz’ portrait of Ellen DeGeneres in Kauai, Hawaii. It was a time and movement sensitive to the Religious Right (remember that buzzword?) in that they failed in the dismantling of Queer identity politics.
Wojnarowicz may have empathized with the crucifix, particularly as a symbol of consummate suffering and death, a suffering he knew well and a death that haunted his future. But Wojnarwicz chose to speak out about his suffering. Suffering in consummate silence was, and still is, no longer allowable.
-Joel Kuennen, ArtSlant Staff Writer