David Wojnarowicz: Convenient Misinterpretations

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David Wojnarowicz: Convenient Misinterpretations

What could have ended a 21 year blacklisting of LGBTQ art in a major museum context has become the target for a fundamentalist attack on basic civil rights and freedom of expression. On December 1st, 2010, G. Wayne Clough, the Smithsonian Secretary, ordered Wojnarowicz's Fire In My Belly video to be removed from the Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture show at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. Curators of the show weren't consulted, nor was the Director of the National Portrait Gallery, Martin Sullivan. How did this happen? Soon after Penny Starr's review was published by the conservative cnsnews.com, Catholic League President Bill Donohue called the video work “hate speech" and criticized the usage of a crucified Jesus covered in ants as "anti-Christian", among other things. Under pressure, after threats by Congressional Representative John Boehner and Eric Cantor, the Smithsonian's Secretary removed the video from the exhibition. This act of censorship officially altered a show about LGBTQ visibility, placing it at the center of a surrealist Culture War, part II.

Film still: David Wojnarowicz, A Fire In My Belly, 1986-87/ 2010. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York.

So, how do 11 seconds of a silent film become "hate speech", resulting in blatant censorship; institutionalized homophobia and a resurgent disdain for body politic work that has defined American Art in the last four decades?

On December 16, 2010, the International Center of Photography held a screening of three edits of Fire In My Belly and a panel discussion with Hide/Seek co-curator Jonathan D. Katz; ICP curator Kristen Lubben; artist and educator Nayland Blake; publisher and friend of DW Amy Scholder; artist Joy Episalla and Marvin Taylor, Director of NYU's Fales Library.

ICP Video Screening and Conversation Panelists, left to right: Joy Episalla, Jonathan D. Katz, Amy Scholder, Marvin Taylor, Nayland Blake. Not pictured: Kristen Lubben. Projected behind the panelists: Wojnarowicz's notes for Fire In My Belly. Photo by Patricia

While attending this panel, I realized the inherent limitations of unmediated content in contemporary media. It's like this: Donohue called this work "hate speech" based on his viewing of Fire In My Belly on YouTube. In all likelihood, he did not visit the exhibition and

Comments [4]

patricia's picture

Thanks for posting so quickly!

If anyone went to the protest in NYC today, do share your experience...

Grace Moon's picture

thanks for doing such

thanks for doing such thorough coverage on allll of this hide/seek/wojnarovich-gate.

protest was great, video post to come.


tweet tweet @gracemoon

KJ's picture

Thanks for writing about

Thanks for writing about this. I have seen the version of the film circulating on YouTube, and didn't know it wasn't identical to the version removed from Hide/Seek. I think this incident is very revealing of the same web of institutional power that, it seems to me, Wojnarowicz's film was responding to.

I don't understand why that fake Catholic guy has any influence on Eric Cantor and John Boehner, or why they have any influence on the Smithsonian, but I'm glad that the curators of Hide/Seek and others are taking responsibility where they can and disclosing publicly what happened.

patricia's picture

Fake Catholics affect real funding

Basically, they threatened cuts of future funding to the institution. This whole fiasco brings many things to light, and especially: the need for institutions to protect their choices and legacies, without being bullied into submission towards agendas that don't reflect the institution's corporate missions anyway!