Here's some of what you'll see if you take a look at A Fire in My Belly, the video by David Wojnarowicz that the National Portrait Gallery removed from Hide/Seek, its current exhibit about "sexual difference" in American portraiture: a legless beggar dodging traffic on his stumps, a mouth being stitched shut with a needle and thread, a bowl of blood, and fire ants on a crucifix.
It's the ants that turned out to be trouble. On November 30, a month after Hide/Seek opened in Washington, D.C.—and a day after conservative news website CNS published a lengthy story about what it called the "Christmas-season exhibit"—Catholic League president Bill Donohue (who also maintains that smoking bans are an elitist left-wing plot) denounced that image as "hate speech." Republican congressmen John Boehner and Eric Cantor promptly called for the exhibit to be shut down and threatened the funding of NPG's parent institution, the Smithsonian.
That very day, acting on orders from Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough (and without an audible whimper), the NPG pulled the video from the exhibit—which immediately caused it to go viral. Versions of it are now all over the Internet, and museums and galleries across the country and around the world are displaying it in protest. Last week, New York's Museum of Modern Art purchased A Fire in My Belly and put it on view as part of its permanent collection.
The response in Chicago has included showings at the Nightingale indie film venue in Noble Square and the School of the Art Institute's Eye & Ear Clinic. The University of Chicago's Smart Museum is screening the piece through February 6, in conjunction with a January 27 panel discussion that's intended to set the controversy in a larger context.
The art world snapped into action, Hide/Seek cocurator Jonathan Katz told me, largely because the Wojnarowicz brouhaha smacks of deja vu. "This isn't about art and, in some sense, it's not even really about homosexuality or homophobia," says Katz, a professor at SUNY/Buffalo. "This is about raw politics in America. What my exhibition, unfortunately, is doing, is offering a platform for a resurgent right in this country to try to again create a culture war."
A Fire in My Belly exists in multiple forms. Wojnarowicz created a 13-minute silent version in 1987, and another seven minutes of material was discovered after his death from AIDS in 1992. One "posthumous edit" has a soundtrack consisting of Diamanda Galas's Plague Mass. Then there's the four-minute cut made specially by Katz (with the approval of the Wojnarowicz estate) for Hide/Seek. Katz's soundtrack features recordings the artist made at ACT UP protests.
The video was a vital part of the exhibit, Katz says, because "it offers one of the most concise pictorial vocabularies for talking about life in the most horrific years of the AIDS plague." The idea that it's anti-Christian is a mistake, he adds. "There's nothing in that film that couldn't be found, for example, in Baroque art, where the image of Jesus becomes the personification of human suffering. To not get that—either you're stupid or it's a red herring. And I tend to believe that it's a red herring, that they were looking for a way to attack the exhibition and they couldn't—as they used to—say, 'Oh there's a queer, go kill it.' They had to find a handle." He considers the Smithsonian's response "regrettable, indefensible, and stupid—an unfortunate resonance of the dark days of 1989" when a show of Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs was canceled by D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery of Art due to pressure from the right.
For its part, the Smithsonian issued a statement saying the Wojnarowicz piece was removed because "the attention it was receiving distracted from the overall exhibition."
Canadian artist AA Bronson is now demanding that the Smithsonian honor his request to remove a work of his from Hide/Seek in protest. Katz doesn't like that either. "I was very much against the removal of the video," he says, "and I'm also against the removal of any work from the exhibition. I don't like the prospect that the left is trying to accomplish in protest what the right wants to have happen: the dismantling of the exhibition."
The 105-piece exhibit is the most expensive ever mounted at the NPG, though expenses were covered by private donations. As is often the case in such matters, "the very controversy intended to close down my exhibition has instead made it the most popular exhibition the National Portrait Gallery has had in a very long time," Katz says. "Attendance is through the roof."
The Smithsonian's taking a beating from all sides, but the Smart Museum's chief curator, Stephanie Smith, says the panel discussion there next Thursday won't be "about pointing a wagging finger but about giving people an opportunity to spend time with the work and to think in public . . . about the implications." Although "there's a strong consensus in the museum community that the work shouldn't have been pulled"—and her panel will reflect that consensus—"in the interest of healthy debate it would be great if somebody in the audience came with a strong argument about why the work should've been taken out."
Made up mostly of U. of C. solons, the panel will be moderated by doctoral student Jenn Sichel, who spent 18 months as a research assistant working on Hide/Seek. It'll also include Barry Blinderman, director of university galleries at Illinois State University, who curated David Wojnarowicz: Tongues of Flame, a 1990 Wojnarowicz retrospective that was characterized by California congressman Dana Rohrabacher as "an orgy of degenerate depravity." The catalog for that show (published with the help of a $15,000 NEA grant) included a Wojnarowicz essay in which, in his rage at the Catholic church's lack of response to the AIDS epidemic, he called New York Cardinal John O'Connor a "fat cannibal." An image from the catalog, showing Jesus shooting up, was reproduced and distributed by the American Family Association's Donald Wildmon; it became the crux of Wojnarowicz's precedent-setting lawsuit against Wildmon for misrepresenting his work, in which Wojnarowicz won $1 in damages.
"It's a shame that people gave in so easily," Blinderman says of the NPG affair. "But I don't judge the Smithsonian because I'm not in Washington. Me not taking down a show in Normal, Illinois, at a university, is one thing—we have the luxury of being in an academic environment." He's had A Fire in My Belly running "in the middle of a Christmas print sale, and no one told me to take it down," he says. "I'm not going to condemn the Portrait Gallery for what they did because I'm not in their shoes. I wish they hadn't done it, and I think it sets a bad precedent, but they're being demonized."
According to Katz, it took years to find a venue willing to risk mounting a show like Hide/Seek. He notes that "some of the very institutions now showing the video expressed no interest in a similar show when I proposed it."