David Wojnarowicz: Convenient Misinterpretations
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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