David Wojnarowicz Censorship Backfires

Protesters on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery (photo by Natalie Cheung

Protesters on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery (photo by Natalie Cheung

The David Wojnarowicz debate has taken on a new voice in the recent days, uniting artists, art admirers, and institutions in a stand against the Smithsonian/National Portrait Gallery censorship of his video “A Fire In My Belly.” The video was removed after pressure from conservative members of Congress and The Catholic League, who described the video as “hate speech” and anti-Christian due to an 11 second clip of ants crawling over a crucifix. The video, which was made in honor of artist Peter Hujar who died of AIDS complications in 1987, was included in the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” 

The censorship has sparked much outrage and solidarity in the art world, resulting in acts of protest. Reactions so far have included a screening of the video by the Transformer Gallery in DC, a protest by more than 100 people outside the Portrait Gallery, the instillation of a Wojnarowicz poster at the Indianapolis Museum of Art as a gesture of support, an attempt by two DC activists to show the video on an iPad inside the Smithsonian this past weekend (they were detained by police and banned from any Smithsonian institution for life), numerous requests to Wojnarowicz’s estate for screening copies, and the current screening by the New Museum in New York City which will go through January 23rd.

The censorship of “A Fire In My Belly” has had an adverse effect, earning it more attention than it may have ever received had it not been labeled a cultural liability and removed from the gallery walls. It will be interesting to see the actions that continue to unfold as the art community attempts to fight this suppression with a strong, unified voice.

We are showing the video here and including P·P·O·W’s statement as per their request.

P·P·O·W and The Estate of David Wojnarowicz disagree with the Smithsonian’s decision to withdraw the artist’s 1987 video piece “A Fire in My Belly” from the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition entitled “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” P·P·O·W has represented Wojnarowicz’s work since 1988 and maintained a close working relationship with the artist until his death in 1992. The gallery now represents his estate.

On behalf of the estate, the gallery would like to offer the artist’s words to illuminate his original intentions. In a 1989 interview Wojnarowicz spoke about the role of animals as symbolic imagery in his work, stating, “Animals allow us to view certain things that we wouldn’t allow ourselves to see in regard to human activity. In the Mexican photographs with the coins and the clock and the gun and the Christ figure and all that, I used the ants as a metaphor for society because the social structure of the ant world is parallel to ours.”

The call for the removal of “A Fire in My Belly” by Catholic League president William Donahue is based on his misinterpretation that this work was “hate speech pure and simple.” This statement insults the legacy of Wojnarowicz, who dedicated his life to activism and the arts community. David Wojnarowicz’s work is collected by international museums including the Museum of Modern Art, NY, The Whitney Museum, The Library of Congress, The New York Public Library, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Reina Sofia in Madrid, Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, etc. Wojnarowicz is also an established writer; his most well known memoirs are Close to the Knives and Memories That Smell Like Gasoline, which are included on many university syllabi.

In 1992 the artist won a historic Supreme Court case, David Wojnarowicz v. American Family Association. The courts sided with Wojnarowicz after he filed suit against Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association, who copied, distorted and disseminated the artist’s images in a pamphlet to speak out against the NEA’s funding of exhibits that included art works of Wojnarowicz and other artists. We are deeply troubled that the remarks, which led to the removal of David’s work from Hide/Seek, so closely resemble those of the past. Wojnarowicz’s fight for freedom of artistic expression, once supported by the highest court, is now challenged again. In his absence, we know that his community, his supporters, and the many who believe in his work will carry his convictions forward.

Meredith Hudson