David Wojnarowicz' "A Fire in My Belly"

David Wojnarowicz “A Fire In My Belly” Pulled from Smithsonian

Youve read all about it. A national museum in Washington has been pressured to remove a work of art that religious groups found objectionable.
The work in question is A Fire in My Belly, by David Wojnarowicz, an artist who died of AIDS in 1992. 10 seconds of the video that mourns the suffering of those with HIV show ants swarming a crucifix.

Think of the surrealist film Andalusian Dog (1929) by Luis Bunuel – we have seen a lot of this before. All the more reason that conservatives are furious. They thought that they had silenced (could we say Mapplethorpe-ed?) supporters of this kind of art in national museums – but like the perennial creature from the Black Lagoon, the art is back.

When the Catholic League, a lay Catholic organization aligned with the Catholic Church, called the crucifix “hate speech,” the incoming Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, demanded that the entire exhibition, “Hide/Seek, Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” devoted to homoerotic love, be yanked. The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (renovated elegantly by the architect Norman Foster) removed the video from the exhibition. The museums director, Martin Sullivan, defended the video as he removed it from the show. It makes you think of John Kerreys unforgettably pathetic line – “I voted for the bill before I voted against it.”
Does this mean that paintings by Salvador Dali or prints of films by Bunuel must now be removed from the walls of museums that receive government funds? There are more than ants crawling on Dalis crucifixes. Will the picketers in Florida march from abortion clinics to the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg?

The dispute isnt over.  The fires are probably just warming. There will be pressure to close the entire exhibition, which has been funded with an infusion of private money, much of it from gay philanthropies. Its already been linked to the defunding of NPR for its ham-handed dismissal of opinion journalist Juan Williams for expressing his opinion about fearing Muslims who get on airplanes.

Notice, however, that this attack on a few seconds of a video in a museum was preceded by years of an armistice in the war between the Religious right and the art world.

After tempers cooled from the denunciation of the Sensation exhibition – in which the Brooklyn Museum presented provocative work by Young British Artists to attract a hip crowd to its under-visited galleries, Conservatives won the white House. They had bigger fish to fry than contemporary artists. Why bother? The artists who had lived off government grants were starving to death anyway.

What followed seemed to be a kind of armistice. Art and its funders retreated to the private sector. Wasnt the Bush revolution supposed to be about privatization? And the Religious Rights constituencies stayed away from museums. It was the art worlds version of “dont ask, dont tell.”

It was assumed that the conservative attack on contemporary art in the US was over. Conservatives had won bigger battles (the White House in 2000), and the amount of tax money spent on culture in the US was minimal. Beyond that, museums and state-supported institutions had been intimidated into avoiding showing work that might anger the Religious Right, even in New York.

Now that Republicans have won major victories in the recent November elections, they are emboldened, and arts organizations are afraid of triggering reactions that might result in being targeted for budget cuts.  The move against the Smithsonian is a warning to institutions around the country. Will it work?  Watch for pre-emptive capitulations, like martin Sullivans? Or could it threaten to separate libertarians from conservatives in the new Tea Party constituency? The jab at the Smithsonian could be a bone thrown to religious conservatives who felt neglected as the Republicans campaigned on the economic concerns of the Tea Party.

Is this attack on Smithsonian about art or sex? A little bit of both. Contemporary art is an easy target for conservatives, especially if tax money is paying for it, but if homosexuality is involved, a scandal can rally a greater number of opponents. The issue rose as the US celebrates National AIDS Awareness Day on December 1, and as the Defense Department “Dont Ask, Dont Tell”  Policy on Homosexuality is debated in Congress.

The removal of the video from view at the Smithsonian coincided with the announcement of a judgment in a Delaware court that awarded $30 million to a man who had been abused by priests. No word from the Catholic League so far on that tragedy.


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