Tuesday, March 1, 2011

(Hell)Fire in my Belly

February 13th marked the end of the run of an exhibit at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery called Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. The exhibition opened last fall to showcase art by gay and lesbian artists who made significant contributions to American culture. Featured artists included Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Jasper Johns, Keith Haring and Georgia O’Keefe.  This was the first exhibit of its kind hosted by the Smithsonian, or any other major museum.

One particular exhibit drew the righteous ire of the Conservative Christians: A Fire in my Belly by David Wojnarowicz.  A 4-minute excerpt of an artistic video that contained 11 seconds of ants crawling on a plastic crucifix was banned. The art world was furious and responded with protests.  The traveling Museum of Censored Art displayed the video during the last week of the exhibit.  It played the video in a loop in a trailer parked in front of the museum.

Per NPR: “Since the controversy erupted, "Fire In My Belly" has been viewed online more than a million times. It's been screened in solidarity by galleries nationwide, and was recently purchased by the Museum of Modern Art."

The video has gone viral as the exhibit attracted more attention than it would have without the censored video. After all, nothing makes art more interesting than censorship. Freedom and expression won the day in the face of opposition. OK, not really. The burning question is why was this video banned in the first place? How, in the 21st century, can modern art be banned from the Smithsonian?

The answer begins with Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League and all around vile human being having become aware of the exhibit and declaring it “Anti-Catholic”. Donahue stated in a November article:

According to Penny Starr of CNSnews.com, David C. Ward, co-curator of the National Portrait Gallery, says the video, "A Fire in My Belly," is one of the "masterpieces" of this exhibit. We call it hate speech. Perversely, there is a plaque at the entrance to the exhibit that says the Gallery is committed to "the struggle for justice so that people and groups can claim their full inheritance in America's promise of equality, inclusion, and social dignity." Somehow Christians didn't make the cut.

The creator of this "masterpiece" video is dead of AIDS. But he did not die without blaming society for his self-destructive behavior. David Wojnarowicz said, "When I was told I'd contracted the virus, it didn't take long for me to realize that I'd contracted a diseased society as well." Who did he blame? Besides some politicians and government workers, he fingered "those thinly disguised walking swastikas that wear religious garments over their murderous intentions." So Father John did it.
Donahue finished the statement by saying that he planned to contact the “House and Senate Appropriations Committees asking them to reconsider future funding.”

Enter House Speaker (Designate at the time) John Boehner and Majority Leader, Eric Cantor who came to the conclusion that the October 30th through February 13th exhibit was "an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season."

"When a museum receives taxpayer money, the taxpayers have a right to expect that the museum will uphold common standards of decency," said Cantor. "The museum should pull the exhibit and be prepared for serious questions come budget time.”

It should be mentioned that the complaints did not begin until the exhibit has been open for about a month.  Apparently, even the Christmas persecution has to wait until after the Black Friday sales.

The story caught fire and thanks to a few right-wing bloggers and a blatant threat to the Smithsonian that federal funding would be withheld, the Smithsonian withdrew the video.

Let’s get some facts straight.  First the exhibit was not “an outrageous use of taxpayer money.” as Cantor called it.  Hide/Seek was a privately funded exhibit.  Curation and utilities are federally funded, which basically keeps admission free to the public.  The museum’s “taxpayer” funding in no way funds the art within.  Donahue noticed this in his article but dismisses it: “It does not matter that private sources funded this exhibition:” He said, “the majority of the money afforded the Smithsonian Institution comes from the taxpayers.” I am certaint that he finds no fault in tax exempt institutions making statements that others fnd offensive.  
Second and most importantly, the video was composed in 1985.

Wojnarowicz (who was raised Catholic) reportedly conceived the idea of the video in response to the death of his mentor, Peter Hujar. Wojnarowicz himself had the disease at the time and was grappling with his own mortality. The Artist, who died of the AIDS-related illness in 1992, has stated that the iconography was a reflection on the intolerance of the religious toward AIDS. This was at the height of the cultural flash-point of AIDS awareness. The religious rhetoric at the time labeled AIDS the “gay disease” and often demonized the inflicted as recipients of God's wrath for their immoral lifestyle. Or as Bill Donahue calls in in 2010 “Self-destructive behavior.”  This is the time before Ryan White and Magic Johnson were able to shift public perception. This only increases the cultural significance of this piece as a representation of the social and political climate of he day. Donahue, Cantor and Boehner have managed to align themselves with the uneducated frightened masses of 25 years ago. I wonder if they even care.

Christ on the Cross, is obviously a universally recognized symbol of suffering. Could it be that the religious right didn’t like the idea of a homosexual dying from AIDS equating his suffering with their asexual messiah?  Ants were a re-occurring theme in Wojnarowicz’s art.We are also talking about 11 seconds in a 4 minute video (excerpted from a 20 minute original piece).

I am not surprised at the Catholic League's outrage. Donahue is a professional "Offended PartyTM". What is somewhat surprising is the conservative members of congress so eagerly using their influence to censor art. The conservative ideology reports to be about small government and the ability for the individual to freely express himself. This sentiment must only apply to the in-group.

Here’s a theory: The new Conservative leaders of the Republican controlled senate are flexing their muscles and taking aim at a cultural embrace of gay culture.  Here is a perfect opportunity to attempt to legislate their theistic beliefs while calling themselves the champions common “standards of decency.”

The goal is two-fold:  

  1. Appease the political base of right-wing conservative Christians by censoring expression of ideas that they disagree with. This being the first major museum to showcase LGBT art as a contributing factor to American society and culture, if they do not silence this voice, Americans might just think that it’s OK to be gay.  
  2. Hide the religious bigotry within religious indignation and claims of intolerance towards the religious. Jonathan Katz, co-curater of the exhibit remarks, "It's no longer the same game that it was 15, 20 years ago, where you simply had to point out the homo and yell, 'Kill it,' and the mob attacked.  Now you have to clothe your homophobia in something else."
The colossal error of the Catholic League and the Conservatives of course was in choosing the censorship of art as the vehicle to communicate their bigotry. Art is messy, loud and visceral. It courts controversy more than a talk radio attention whore (I’m looking at you, Glenn). Opposition only makes the expression of these ideas more romantic to the art community. They chose the wrong enemies in the art world. These are people who literally make a living by expressing ideas. Nothing makes an artist want to shout more than being told to be silent.  Make no mistake. Their outrage will only inspire more art.  

Fair Warning: Video is NSFW


Jack said...

I can't think of a phrase that I find more obscene than "common standards of decency".