Ants crawling on a crucifix isn't necessarily the most offensive image to come out of the realm of contemporary art, but its appearance in the video work "Fire in My Belly" by David Wojnarowicz at a current exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery sparked outrage last week among such conservative leaders as Speaker of the House-elect John Boehner, incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Catholic League president William Donohue, leading to its swift removal from the Washington, D.C. museum by Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough.
Since then, art activists have erupted in critique of the spontaneous censorship. From Houston St. to Houston, arts organizations have risen to the occasion, broadcasting "Fire in My Belly" both in protest of the National Portrait Gallery's actions and to confirm the museum's primary role: the dissemination of ideas. On Wednesday night, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston will screen Wojnarowicz's critical work in the Freed Auditorium of The Glassell School of Art.
"I was getting a flurry of e-mails before bed the other night, from SF Camerawork and the New Museum, which had decided to screen the video to let people decide for themselves," CAMH director Bill Arning tells CultureMap. "I was laying there and thought, 'Too bad it's not in Houston.' And then I realized I could make it happen."
Wojnarowicz's piece utilizes the Christ image as a symbol of universal suffering in relation to the AIDS epidemic and appeared in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, which poses as an examination of the role sexual identity has played in the creation of modern American portraiture. The work was taken down without even consulting the show's co-curator, art historian Jonathan David Katz.
"I always think of ruptures such as this as a really good time to set the terms of the censorship debate," Arning says. "As contemporary arts folks, you want artists to push the boundaries. When it comes to museums, if everyone likes everything you do, you are clearly not doing your job properly.
"In the case of this censorship, there wasn't even a struggle," laments Arning. "And in terms of the ethics of museum management, it's just wrong. 'Fire in My Belly' is important; it's complex; and it's by a major artist who's deceased and no longer here to defend himself."
A DVD of the 13-minute footage has already arrived via PPOW contemporary art gallery in New York. Wednesday's screening at the Glassell School will be followed by a group discussion, after which Arning hopes to move the video to another Houston venue for constant access to visitors.
This won't be the first time Houston has exhibited the crucial work of Wojnarowicz: In August, as part of the Because We Are exhibition, the Station Museum of Contemporary Art presented a screening of Wojnarowicz's "Itsofomo: In the Shadow of Forward Motion," a collaborative reading performance with musician Ben Neill, dealing with fear and the sense of loss over the impact of AIDS.
As for potential antagonists in Houston, Arning surmises, "I don't think there's a history of censorship in the same way here. I don't anticipate any dissent at all."
He concludes, "It was up to us that we fundamentally have to support artists in what they do and their rights to free expression. Hopefully we'll engender some good discussion."
View a clip of "Fire in My Belly" below: