What would David Wojnarowicz have thought?
Large crowd of Houston art lovers protest Smithsonian censorship of A Fire in MyBelly
What would David Wojnarowicz have thought?
I had this in mind as I headed to a screening and discussion of the artist’s 1987 video A Fire in My Belly, which was recently censored by the Smithsonian Institution in response to objections by religious and conservative organizations.
After 20 minutes of film and 90 minutes of conversation, the answer seemed clear. If Wojnarowicz were still alive, he’d probably think “Here we go again.”
And I bet he’d be really pissed off.
Anger was also palpable in the air in the Glassell School of Art’s Freed Auditorium but it was accompanied by a sense of solidarity as art lovers and what seemed like a sizable group of Houston’s curators assembled to stand up for the integrity and autonomy of museums in the face of the controversies that often result from powerful art.
The image around which so much of this storm has emerged is a still shot, one single frame, featuring ants crawling over a crucifix. Like Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” this image has been taken as offensive to Catholics and Christians more broadly.
The evening was organized by the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston in concert with a nationwide protest by museums and galleries of the removal of the video from Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery.
Panelists Bill Arning, director of the CAMH; Anne Tucker, curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston; and James Harithas, founding director of the Station Museum, drew from their vast experience to explore the implications of this controversy.
Wojnarowicz was no stranger to either censorship or political attacks. Selectively edited images from his collages were featured as examples of blasphemy in conservative pamphlets in the late 1980s. And for many at the event, there was a sense of déjà vu.
Anne Tucker inveighed against what she sees as an obvious cynicism behind “an attack on culture directly related to political ascension.” Such attacks, Tucker argued, have a disturbingly long lineage, especially in the last century. She included the burning of books that marked Hitler’s rise to power, several cycles of blacklisting leading up to the McCarthy hearings, and Jesse Helms’s attacks on the NEA and artists such as Serrano, Mapplethorpe, and Karen Finley.
For Tucker, these controversies were all generated to “split the population and give rise to political careers.” She identified this latest chapter with recent Republican election victories while others in the room appeared to have the Tea Party in mind.
Bill Arning was reflective about the past, but his comments bristled with righteous anger and a sense of regret about the failure of museums and artists to defend themselves against the attacks of the Helms era. Arning referred to “mistakes we made in the rules of engagement.” But he also sounded an optimistic note about how museums could handle such protests now.
“Those of us who were young kids when this last happened are now in positions of power,” Arning said.
He was most eloquent when discussing the civilization-building work of museums. Given the easy accessibility of information and images in a digital age, museums no longer serve as the first point of contact for so many forms of experience. The point he said, is to make museums “safe places to talk about dangerous things.” That mission is impossible in the face of censorship.
“We cannot do our jobs if we’re afraid of upsetting someone,” he said.
James Harithas described the Smithsonian’s actions in even more disturbing contexts. Referring also to the recent WikiLeaks scandal, he said, “The government is trying to censor everyone. And our journalists didn’t a very good job for us.”
The government and the media may fail but artists, Harithas claimed, “give us a true sense of what reality is.” Harithas was equally impassioned about the devastation wrought by AIDS on artists of Wojnarowicz’s era, including Wojnarowicz who died in 1992.
"We lost a big chunk of the art world and we never recovered from it," Harithas said.
Arning, Tucker, and Harithas had not even finished their prepared comments when the crowd joined in , eager to denounce censorship and curious to hear about how Houston institutions have dealt with controversial art. The answers were refreshingly positive about the climate for curators. Arning referred to Houston as a city with little or no tradition of censoring the arts.
Harithas, who Tucker described as having sponsored the most dangerous shows at the Station Museum, said “My sense is that the community backs you up.” It seems he was right.
The events provoked by Fire in the Belly are evidence of the profound contradictions in contemporary America. This was abundantly clear from the screening of the film, which is an odd, haunting, beautiful and disturbing meditation on sex, death, and desire. The video is compelling in ways that make that image of a crucifix swarmed by ants seem mysteriously unremarkable.
Still, It was heartening to see the CAMH sponsor a major conversation about art at a very complicated moment in American history. Even more heartening was the size of the crowd; by my count, there were roughly 150 people in attendance.
The greatest hope I had, leaving the event, was that more conversation might follow. What does Wojnarowicz have to say to us about the relationship between art and religion, which, for centuries have alternated between cooperation and combat. What does A Fire in My Belly have to say about the nature of gay art right now?
More disturbing still: Is this the beginning of a new wave of censorship? Recently the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles announced it would whitewash an anti-war mural by graffiti artist Blu that the museum had commissioned. Blu’s mural features coffins that are draped with dollar bills rather than flags and is located near a Veteran Affairs hospital and a war memorial. Opinions are divided and even Shepard Fairey has weighed in.
After tonight’s rousing events, I can’t help wondering, what would Wojnarowicz do?