Just this past week the video piece from 1986/7 by David Wojnarowicz Fire In My Belly (show above) was pulled from the exhibit Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture by G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute. Hide/Seek is currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.
From the gallery website: This is the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture. “Hide/Seek” 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.
The piece was deemed anti-religious by the Catholic League and members of the House of Representatives for being offensive to Christians due to a scene (which in the video above doesn’t start until after the 13:08 minute mark). I originally heard/read about what was going on through Twitter. The Art/Blog community are up in arms and in my opinion have every right to be. I first watched “Fire In My Belly” while as a TA at NYU studying and working in a class specific to the Downtown music and art scene of the late 70’s to early 90’s. The fact that the piece was pulled from the exhibition is ridiculous. The structure of a museum is to house collections of art and for the most part hold relics of the past. Well, Fire in my Belly, is part of our very recent past. The piece is reactionary to an artist who was dying of AIDS (Wojnarowicz passed away in 1992).
Anyone who is familiar with even the most banal art found in poster shops like Spencer’s Gifts, in malls across American, should recognize the work of great Spanish painter Salvador Dali. The Persistence of Memory, is just that and the image was tattooed within the crevices of my mind as a young child and if far from banal due to its rich content, I use the term alone based on its commercial availability. If you can recall, Dali, often used ants in his paintings. Small black insects that were seen crawling in various landscapes and situations. Why I bring up the ants is because they were a huge part for the outcry. In Wojnarowiczs’ video, ants crawl on a crucifix and the image was deemed “in your face perversion paid for by tax dollars.” by Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia. Art is a huge form of expression and according to the First Amendment we have the right to freedom of speech. Whether or not the museum is paid for in part by tax dollars, does not give anyone the right to pull artwork from an exhibit that not only has historical and contemporary resonance, but also is a visually stunning. It saddens me to think that in 2010 and on the cusp of 2011, censorship still continues to be a relevant part of our country both inside and outside of the museum context.
David Wojnarowicz played an extremely important role in the 80’s and early 90’s and while some of his work may be difficult to watch, it is an honest account of an experience and as artists, and as members of society, all we can hope for is to broaden our own scope and realize that not everything is perfect. Within those instances that are not perfect and may bring pain to life, there are also reminders of beauty, if you let someone show it to you and are brave enough to look.
The video above was posted by PPOW Gallery, who own the rights to the Wojnarowicz Estate and in collaboration with NYU Fales Library on Vimeo after having been removed from Youtube. I watched this in its entirety, and another shorter version with a soundtrack by Diamonda Galas. I prefer the piece above because in its silence, you are given the choice to ruminate and come to your own conclusions rather then be guided by audio.
Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture is on view until February 13th, 2011.
Stop CENSORSHIP in the ARTS, A call for action is taking place Sunday, December 5th, 3:00pm at Participant Inc. in NYC.
Also, watch Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s “Talking About Similarity” from 1976, which was on view as part of Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present at MoMA. The artist Ulay uses needle and thread to sew his mouth shut.