The Video the Smithsonian Censored
“A Fire in My Belly,” the video project made in 1987 by David Wojnarowicz which got famously removed by the Smithsonian from their “Hide/Seek” queer desire retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in 2010 is posted in full above.
Inspired by surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, “A Fire” is a silent, stream-of-conscious compilation of bizarre imagery (a rotating eyeball), newspaper clippings (crime headlines in Mexico), black & white vintage video of wrestlers and cockfights.
But it’s the last 4 minutes, starting at the 13:20-minute mark, that got the Catholic League up in arms, demanding that the Smithsonian remove it entirely from the exhibit. The League and some members of Congress claimed that the 11-second depiction of ants crawling on a crucifix (gasp!) was “designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians.”
You bet damn right it was! Wojnarowicz was an angry man up until his death in 1992, angry for feeling invisible, angry for contracting AIDS.
”I want to throw up because we’re supposed to quietly and politely make house in this killing machine called America and pay taxes to support our own slow murder and I’m amazed we’re not running amok in the streets, and that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this,” he said.
But his anger, his offensive intention is still no reason for censorship. Blake Gopnik wrote in the Washington Post:
If every piece of art that offended some person or some group was removed from a museum, our museums might start looking empty – or would contain nothing more than pabulum. Goya’s great nudes? Gone. The Inquisition called them porn.
Norman Rockwell would get the boot, too, if I believed in pulling everything that I’m offended by: I can’t stand the view of America that he presents, which I feel insults a huge number of us non-mainstream folks. But I didn’t call for the Smithsonian American Art Museum to pull the Rockwell show… His admirers got to have their say, and his detractors, including me, got to rant about how much they hated his art. Censorship would have prevented that discussion, and that’s why we don’t allow it.
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has said that taxpayer-funded museums should uphold “common standards of decency.” But such “standards” don’t exist, and shouldn’t, in a pluralist society. My decency is your disgust, and one point of museums, and of contemporary art in general, is to test where lines get drawn and how we might want to rethink them. A great museum is a laboratory where ideas get tested, not a mausoleum full of dead thoughts and bromides.
Tyler Green wrote in ArtInfo about the larger issues this censorship presents to the American LGBT experience:
A key part of these events is the refusal of religious conservatives to acknowledge that gays and lesbians are Americans in full, as worthy of being studied and contextualized by historians as Catholics or Montanans. The religious right wants nothing less than for gays and lesbians to be made as invisible as possible, to be hidden or removed from our shared national history.
Ironically, almost 20 years after his death, Wojnarowicz is still reliving his nightmare — his mouth being sewed shut with thread.
“A Fire in My Belly” also includes several seconds of masturbatory foreplay, which no one really mentioned during the controversy. Shot under strobe lights, it took me like 20 minutes to get some good screen caps. You’re welcome.