News & Politics

The Smithsonian's Latest Censorship Scandal Is a Decades-Old Stunt from the Right-Wing Playbook

Artist David Wojnarowicz warred with conservatives 20 years ago before his death from AIDS. Is this seriously happening again?

Earlier this month, when the Catholic League and conservative Congress members blew up over David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly,” a 1987 video piece on exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, it was ostensibly because an image of a crucifix crawling with ants offended their sensibilities.

Filmed by the artist in Mexico during Dia de los Muertos and meant as a sanguine commentary on AIDS -- which took Wojnarowicz’s life in 1992 -- the crucifix was lying on the ground (hence the ants) near other icons of the day, left in homage and celebration of deceased loved ones. Though the Jesus clip lasted mere seconds, a flash in a video that also included found footage and a short sequence of a man stripping off his pants and masturbating, the Smithsonian capitulated to the conservative groups’ demands over the crucifix. Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough, against the wishes of NPG curators, removed the work from the group exhibit “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” widely seen as the first landmark-scale show celebrating the achievements of gays and lesbians in American art history.

 [Watch "A Fire in My Belly"]

The Smithsonian defended its position in a press release, stating that “A Fire in My Belly” was “perceived by some to be anti-Christian” and had “generated a strong response from the public” -- despite the fact that no one visiting the exhibit had complained before right-wing groups launched their crusade against the piece. “We removed it from the exhibition Nov. 30 because the attention it was receiving distracted from the overall exhibition,” continued the release, “which includes works by American artists John Singer Sargent, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Annie Leibovitz and Georgia O’Keeffe.”

Clough’s censorship of the piece in the context of a group exhibit called "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” not only reflected his cowardice -- he’s still not talking to journalists -- but his lack of understanding of the artist. As Philip Kennicott puts it in an excellent piece for the Washington Post, Wojnarowicz was a lapsed Catholic who explored the complexities of the church, “a complicated organization, monolithic only in the minds of its leaders... Wojnarowicz’s imagery was richly Catholic because Catholicism was richly malevolent.” (As many lapsed Catholics know, you can remove god from the equation, but you can never entirely shrug off the culture.)

In their initial outrage, Republicans John Boehner and Eric Cantor threatened the Smithsonian’s funding  -- a go-to conservative scare tactic they’ve been using a lot lately, with Boehner going so far as to call for the end of the entire exhibition. "American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds,” his statement read. “While the amount of money involved may be small, it's symbolic of the arrogance Washington routinely applies to thousands of spending decisions involving Americans' hard-earned money. Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January."

But the specific exhibit was funded largely by grants from individual institutions, not the government, whose $761 million fund for the Smithsonian last year encompassed the entire institution, including the National Zoo and the Natural History Museum -- the latter of which inspired one of Wojnarowicz’s most devastating works, the buffalo photograph that later appeared in a U2 video. One “Hide/Seek” donor, the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts, put up $100,000 for this particular show alone -- but now that it’s been censored, last week it threatened to pull its own funding if the NPG does not reinstate “A Fire in My Belly.”

On December 22, the prominent artist AA Bronson sent a message demanding the Smithsonian remove his work from the show, a portrait of his lover Felix shortly after he died of AIDS, saying he would not be involved in an exhibit that was so quick to backstab artists. And just two days ago, the owner of Jack Pierson’s “Untitled, Self-Portrait” requested that the NPG remove his loaned piece until “A Fire in My Belly” is reinstated. So far both Bronson and Pierson have been unable to get the NPG to acquiesce, refusing to bring back “A Fire in My Belly” but leaving up their works under the guise of not wanting to further defang the art show. Protests in the streets, including a particularly successful march in New York organized by anti-homophobia group Art Positive, have not yet changed the Smithsonian’s decision.

The underlying tension is clear: the incoming GOP Congress is dead-set on kickstarting the culture wars, and those institutions targeted must be diligent in maintaining their integrity and values as the firestorms are unleashed. As AlterNet’s Lauren Kelley points out, 1990s-style defunding threats have already been leveled against NPR, and according to the Post’s Kennicott, the Smithsonian “has re-empowered forces that will soon be back for more symbolic acts of contrition and subservience.”

This is not the first time Wojnarowicz has been at the center of tension and controversy between conservative government and free speech. The first was prior to his death, during the landmark 1989 quarrel between a group of conservatives against the National Endowment of the Arts, when funding was stripped from an exhibition on AIDS after an essay Wojnarowicz wrote for the accompanying catalogue attacked various figures that allowed the disease to flourish in America (including Reagan, obviously).

A main target was outspoken homophobe Jesse Helms, who wielded a loud megaphone against progressive/provocative arts -- including, notoriously, Robert Mapplethorpe -- and who Wojnarowicz denounced as “a repulsive senator from zombieland.” In 1990, he painted “Subspecies Helms, Senator” which depicted the head of the senator atop the body of a spider, whose white-widow markings were replaced with a swastika. How ironic that Helms’ spiritual sons, Boehner and Cantor, have gleefully picked up his torch and sought to further censor Wojnarowicz’s speech posthumously. Two decades later, even after miracle breakthroughs in the treatment and possible curing of HIV, right-wingers are still proving his point that AIDS is a hot-button and grossly misunderstood -- that they still refuse to look deeper into artworks as long as their agendas are being furthered with broadstroke, ridiculous rhetoric. Eric Cantor, when asked, called the piece an “outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.” Bill Donohue, the head of the Catholic League, took a Glenn Beck-ian reverse-discrimination tack, calling “A Fire in My Belly” “hate speech.”

In 1991, Wojnarowicz filed a lawsuit against a kind of predecessor to Donohue -- American Family Association minister Donald Wildmon, a homophobe who defamed Wojnarowicz by mailing pamphlets against the homosexuality within his work, and reproduced some of it as well. In rhetoric that sounds disturbingly familiar, the pamphlet was titled, “Your Tax Dollars Helped Pay for these Works of ‘Art’." Alleging copyright infringement and defamation, Wojnarowicz won the suit and the AFA was forced to cease distribution and publish a correction, and he was the first of his peers to bravely stand up to his conservative detractors in court at the cusp of the culture wars.

In Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, Wojnarowicz’s 1991 collection of essays, he wrote about his frustration, the psychic pain he mined for much of his work. "My rage is really about the fact that WHEN I WAS TOLD THAT I'D CONTRACTED THIS VIRUS,” he wrote, “IT DIDN'T TAKE ME LONG TO REALIZE THAT I'D CONTRACTED A DISEASED SOCIETY AS WELL."

How shameful that 20 years later, a museum dedicated to art history still refuses to protect him.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.
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