A Fire in My Belly
Last month, the Catholic League (a group unaffiliated with the Catholic Church) in concert with several conservative members of Congress demanded that A Fire in My Belly, a 1987 video by the artist David Wojnarowicz, be removed from Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, an exhibition about gay identity at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. This video, which confronts the ravages of AIDS in Latin America, includes an 11-second segment showing ants crawling over a crucifix, an image that these critics saw as anti-Christian. For Holland Cotter, writing for the New York Times, the ants represent human beings inured to the suffering of Jesus and, by implication, to the suffering of those with AIDS.
Like most art, A Fire in My Belly is open to a variety of interpretations, but here political pressure assured that only one perspective was acknowledged. Without waiting to assess opposition to the conservatives’ threats, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution ordered the removal of Wojnarowicz’s work from the show. There has been an outcry among museums, many of which are now showing A Fire in My Belly in their galleries in protest. The Warhol and Calder Foundations, which supported the exhibition, have said that if the work is not reinstated they will no longer contribute to the Smithsonian’s museums. (In Pittsburgh, our sister organization, The Andy Warhol Museum, has the video on display until February 13, the last day of Hide/Seek in Washington. It can also be seen at the Mattress Factory until February 13 and at Wood Street Galleries until January 30.)
In the case of the National Portrait Gallery, certain politicians’ autocratic and uninformed insistence that only they know what “the public” believes has denied the complexity of experience, suggesting that there is one “public” with a single opinion and, in the process, stepping on our First Amendment rights. Equally disheartening for me is the denial of history at the root of the attack. Critics of the video not only ignore the desperate circumstances to which Wojnarowicz was responding, but they also deny the long tradition of images of the crucified Christ in extremis, from European Renaissance art to works found in rural Mexican churches. In 2010, AIDS remains a plague in many other countries and among the American poor. Only a few decades ago, it was a death sentence that ravaged people from all walks of life, inflicting great pain on families and neighborhoods all over this country. For the arts, the loss was enormous. Wojnarowicz was one of many artists, critics, curators, dealers, and collectors who succumbed to the disease.
In February, Carnegie Museum of Art will present an exhibition dedicated to another artist felled by AIDS, Paul Thek, a practicing but unconventional Catholic whose work would probably not be acceptable to the Catholic League either. In conjunction with Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective, we will hold a panel discussion on March 31 on the artist’s relationship to religion. In response to the controversy around Hide/Seek, we are also planning a program for February on the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s in order to remind us of its impact on the arts, and to inform those who were too young to experience it. More information on this program will follow. I very much hope you will join us for these two events.
Until next month,