Does It Really Get Better? The Unfolding Controversy Surrounding the Smithsonian and David Wojnarowicz

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (One Day this Kid...) 1990
Getting caught up with the end of term, I have not yet had a chance to weigh in on the brewing and unfolding controversy surrounding the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and its recent exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” which examines the role sexual identity has played in the creation of modern portraiture. One of the exhibition’s works—a four-minute video created as a complex metaphor for AIDS in 1987 by artist David Wojnarowicz (now deceased)—was removed by the Gallery at the beginning of the month when allegations were made by the Catholic League and a number of Republican members of the US government about the anti-Christian nature of the work. The “disturbing” images in question relate to a short eleven second section of the film, titled A Fire in My Belly  featuring ants walking across a crucifix (see clip below). Of course many people believe that this particular allegation is just a diversion for the actual target of protest and homophobia related to the fear of direct conversations around the full spectrum of sexuality (and the AIDS crisis) conjured up by the art work and broader exhibition.

Robert Mapplethorpe's controversial photographs were
at the center of an  infamous 1989 exhibition at the Corcoran
Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
Shown here: Derrick Cross and Friends (1982)
Since that time a number of important questions and debates are once again emerging within American art institution circles concerning the public funding for the arts and questions of obscenity and the freedom of expression in the country’s museums. Reminiscent of the 1980's Culture Wars that saw the work of Robert Mapplethorpe come under scrutiny (a topic I have written about), the Twitterverse has been burning up with articles, op-ed links, and calls for protest in the wake of the controversy. Most recently, the Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts has announced that it will withhold all potential future funding from the Smithsonian unless it reverses its decision and reinstates the video into the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has decided to host a screening of A Fire in My Belly and a public forum discussion about the work and controversy on January 4, 2011.

Andreas Sterzing,
David Wojnarowicz "Silence=Death"  1989
The most comprehensive and compelling coverage of these unfolding events has undoubtedly come from Tyler Green over at ARTINFO, and I recommend checking out his timely series of interviews  with both the curators of the present Smithsonian exhibition (Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward) and the Q&A he did with curator Dan Cameron who put together a retrospective of Wojnarowicz’s work in 1999 at the New Museum in New York. I was especially struck with how much Wojnarowicz foresaw the kind of controversy and heated debate that his work would continue to stir in audiences:

MAN (Tyler Green): What was Wojnarowicz’s reaction when these types of things happened to him?

Dan Cameron: I think that David was pretty agonized a lot of the time, to be honest with you. He just didn’t understand why someone who wants to actualize their life, their consciousness, in the broadest and richest possible way, why they’d become targets for people who want to shut that down. There was an essential confusion with him, he’d ask it over and over again: What is the source of homophobia in our society, and why do we not look at homophobia as a disease the same way we understand racism and sexism are bad and negative, and that they harm and even kill people? We’ve never had that national conversation, and David insisted that it be in the forefront of discussion of his work.

When the forces of religious-driven bigotry rose up, when he became the victim, he really suffered. It was really horrible for him to live with this reality. He was surrounded by people at the time who said, ‘It’s a bitter cup, but you’re going to have to take it.’ In that sense, this idea that people are saying that David’s work is hate speech against Christians during the Christian season… it’s fascinating how passionately [the religious right has] used anti-bigotry and anti-hate language and that they have turned the same language and weapons to beat us up with.

I even heard Rep. Cantor go off on the class dimensions, saying it’s only elitist East Coast liberals who believe this stuff is art.! To think of David, who was a Polish-American from a working-class background, and to hear these accusations of elitism, it’s frightening. 

MAN (Tyler Green): Did Wojnarowicz expect that this silliness would continue after his death, or did he expect the persecution to pass?

Dan Cameron: I don’t really know. I think he had a pretty pessimistic and borderline fatalistic viewpoint on the need for American society to need to invest in homophobia. He thought it performed a dynamic function in American society, and that unless we look at why fear and hatred of gay people is part of our culture we’ll never get to the bottom of it.

I think that he thought that in the early 1990s that there was no one willing to do the heavy lifting. That’s changed now: You have the Log Cabin Republicans and a broad non-partisan consensus about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But I don’t think that the roots of homophobia have been explored. I don’t think we’ve begun to look into the ‘why’ of all this, why people like Boehner and Cantor seem to continually believe that gay-baiting and using this broad, blunt instrument to attack contemporary art through its exposed gay flank, why they think they can get away with it, why they think they can get mileage out of the fear and loathing of gay people.

Of course, maybe they do. The Association of Art Museum Directors basically, in a very, very bland, kind of almost anti-confrontational statement in which the sexual identity of David was non-issue, didn’t really stand up.

MAN (Tyler Green): I’ve been struggling with whether this kind of dust-up is ‘good’ for the artist’s legacy in that it brings attention to his work or ‘bad’ because it reduces him to cartoonish public flare-ups. Have you thought of that this past week and if so have you come to any conclusions?

Dan Cameron: A friend of mine here in New Orleans reported to me a very heated elevator conversation he overheard wherein a couple of right-wingers were speaking with great approval of the censorship and how dare they call this art and so on. Of course, this person didn’t intervene.

I think when people talk about contemporary art I think it’s always good for contemporary art. I would even say that when bigoted people talk about this, it’s good for contemporary art because in exposing their bigotry or narrow-mindedness, it’s good for other people and that’s really important.

I think more important than these suit-and-ties who are having a knee-jerk reaction are young people, who have an intrinsic resistance to censorship. They want to know why it’s being done and they want to get to the bottom of it. I bet there are thousands or millions of young people hearing about this and looking at David Wojnarowicz’s work for the first time. The museums who are presenting David Wojnarowicz’s work in response to this controversy will only add to the appreciation and understanding of his work. It’s just unfortunate that it has to happen in this way.

As for the Smithsonian, they have issued a Q&A of their own on the museum’s website outlining their position on why they removed the work.  It will be interesting to see how these events continue to unfold and circulate discourse about both the art/artist and the real underlying issues in question.

David Wojnarowicz, A Fire in My Belly (1987) *warning: some images may be disturbing*