Even in death, Wojnarowicz a target as censors come knocking
Real Art Ways
56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006
David Wojnarowicz: A Fire in My Belly
On display indefinitely.
The culture wars are back.
Of course, we haven't been truly free of them since the heated battles of the early 1990's over such controversial art world touchstones as Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs, Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" and the NEA Four—performance artists (Karen Finley, Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, John Fleck) whose grants were overturned in a display of mewling self-censorship by the National Endowment for the Arts Executive Director at the time John Frohnmayer.
But with the ascension of a GOP majority in the House of Representatives coinciding with a new Depression, the need for corporate-oriented conservatives to displace economic anxieties onto cultural anxieties—and the power to do so—has once more become acute.
The target, as in the early 1990's, is gay sexuality and its expression in art. The catalyzing event in this current contretemps was the reaction by right wing blogger Penny Starr to the inclusion of a four-minute excerpt from the late David Wojnarowicz's video "A Fire in My Belly" in Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution. Wojnarowicz, who died of complications of AIDS in 1992, created "A Fire in My Belly" as both a cri de coeur and cry of rage over the ravages of the disease in the gay community and societal indifference to the toll.
In response, Real Art Ways in Hartford—and many other arts spaces around the country—is showing Wojnarowicz's video as a protest against censorship and an act of solidarity with demands for intellectual and artistic freedom. (Real Art Ways is showing a different four-minute edit of the Wojnarowicz piece.)
According to information posted on the Web site of the National Portrait Gallery, Hide/Seek "is the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture." The exhibition "considers such themes as the role of sexual difference in depicting modern America; how artists explored the fluidity of sexuality and gender; how major themes in modern art—especially abstraction—were influenced by social marginalization; and how art reflected society’s evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment."
Right wing, homophobic bigot William Donohue of the Catholic League, which has no official connection to the Roman Catholic Church, then got into the act, too. While Starr and Donohue recoiled that an exhibit dealing sympathetically with same sex attraction was being shown in the federally-funded auspices of the National Portrait Gallery (albeit with private funding for the show), they were particularly exercised by short snippets in the Wojnarowicz video of ants crawling over a Jesus on a small crucifix.
After John Boehner, the incoming Speaker of the House, and Eric Cantor, incoming majority leader, "called for the dismantling of an exhibit in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery after they learned that it contains video of a Jesus statue with ants crawling on it, as well as works of art with strongly sexual themes," as reported by The Hill on Nov. 30, the Smithsonian caved and removed Wojnarowicz's video.
The art world response was almost immediate. The next day, Transformer, a Washington, D.C. contemporary art space, downloaded a four-minute version of Wojnarowicz's video and began showing it in their storefront window. Transformer Executive and Artistic Director Victoria Reis organized a protest for Thursday, Dec. 2. Some 100 protesters—many covering their faces with masks of Wojnarowicz's face—watched the video and then marched to the steps of the National Portrait Gallery where they stood in silent vigil. In a creative new media tactic since then, some anti-censorship activists have gone to the Hide/Seek exhibit and browsed the works while wearing iPads playing "A Fire in My Belly" in a silent, continuous loop.
Will Wilkins, executive director of Real Art Ways in Hartford, took the helm of that organization in 1990, just as the culture wars hit their boil. When the NEA Four had their grants yanked, Wilkins contacted the four artists the next day and invited them to Hartford. Real Art Ways presented shows by each of the NEA Four in Hartford and also arranged for some shows in New Haven and Northampton in Massachusetts.
In an interview at Real Art Ways last week, Wilkins tells me that the Internet has facilitated anti-censorship organizing this time. When Wilkins heard Transformer was showing the video, he contacted Reis the next day and asked how she got a copy. Told they got it off YouTube, Real Art Ways did the same and. The video is showing indefinitely on a continuous loop in the video room. Additionally, Real Art Ways obtained permission from P.P.O.W. Gallery, which represents Wojnarowicz's estate, to show both a longer version of "A Fire in My Belly" and the profound "Untitled (One Day This Kid...)" poster featuring a picture of Wojnarowicz as a young boy and his lacerating text describing his experience of oppression as he embraced—and was tormented for—his sexuality. The Wadsworth Atheneum, which has an original of "Untitled (One Day This Kid...)," is also showing it in solidarity with the anti-censorship campaign.
"It wasn't a hard decision to make," Wilkins says. "Part of our mission—at the center—is support for artists. This is very clearly an act of self-censorship on the part of the Smithsonian."
While Wilkins believes anti-gay bigotry and not religion is behind the outcry by Starr and Donohue, he doesn't dispute their right to express their criticism. What Wilkins finds more troubling are the statements from Boehner and Cantor suggesting the Smithsonian's funding is at risk over the work.
"It's kind of chilling when you look at Congressmen making threatening statements like that, threatening and bullying behavior," says Wilkins. "They're trying to push the Smithsonian around.
"This is not about Real Art Ways saying 'we can't be censored.' It's about a national institution," Wilkins says. "It's about the whole idea that you don't apply a political litmus test to people working in museums, or in academia. If they are good at what they do, let them do it. This isn't the former Soviet Union. There is such a thing as intellectual and artistic freedom."
Wilkins is pleased at the extent of the anti-censorship response.
"Places all over the country and internationally are sharing it. That's really exciting to me. It could be a sense of solidarity with the idea of the original exhibition at the Smithsonian. There are certain values worth standing up for," argues Wilkins. "In some ways, there is some good that's already come out of it because of people's prompt and unified response." Because of the resistance to the act of censorship, Wilkins contends, "More people have become aware of David Wojnarowicz's work."
Accompanied by a Diamanda Galás soundtrack, the version of "A Fire in My Belly" showing at Real Art Ways is four minutes of gut-wrenching intensity, notwithstanding the low resolution of the Web-sourced video. Blood drips into a bowl, coins drop into a hands of a beggar. Faces of anguish flash on the screen. Large carcasses of meat are hung up. A man undresses and starts to masturbate in semi-darkness. Fire-breathers belch flames in the Mexican streets where the video was shot. Quick cuts show mummified figures, their gaunt visages akin to those of end-stage AIDS patients. Images of two halves of a loaf of bread being stitched together are juxtaposed with painful footage of Wojnarowicz himself having his mouth literally sewn shut, an allusion perhaps to the silence of government officials, medical professionals and clergy that condemned thousands to lonely and painful deaths. (One of those thousands was my youngest brother, Peter Judge, a gentle soul and wonderful investigative journalist who died of complications of AIDS in February, 1991 at the age of 30.) And then there are the ants crawling over Jesus on the crucifix, an image of suffering in the face of social passivity.
THE P.P.O.W. Gallery and the Estate of David Wojnarowicz addressed the controversy over the ants in an official statement:
On behalf of the estate, the gallery would like to offer the artist's words to illuminate his original intentions. In a 1989 interview Wojnarowicz spoke about the role of animals as symbolic imagery in his work, stating, "Animals allow us to view certain things that we wouldn't allow ourselves to see in regard to human activity. In the Mexican photographs with the coins and the clock and the gun and the Christ figure and all that, I used the ants as a metaphor for society because the social structure of the ant world is parallel to ours."
"Silence equals death" was the Act-Up slogan and Wojnarowicz's art was forged in that crucible of activism and agitation for life.
"His work is so strong and so reflects that horrible time," says Wilkins. "Watching the four-minute video is so visceral. It brought back the feeling of a time that's gone. It's almost impossible to describe to people who weren't there what it was like. I think of all the family and friends we lost—people who were creative people who would still be in our lives, creativity that would be part of our lives that's gone. It makes me feel particularly strongly about showing this work and saying stop the bullying, stop the gay bashing. Stop it!"