Nothing makes you an art world hero like sticking it to another museum’s censorship. Which is exactly what New York’s Museum of Modern Art did last week when it announced its purchase of a video recently censored by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
To refresh memories, the video is “A Fire in My Belly,” a video collage by artist David Wojnarowicz that depicts the reality of AIDS in Latin America during the 1980s and Wojnarowicz’s personal struggle with the disease before it killed him in 1992.
The Smithsonian originally decided to show it as part of “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” the first national exhibit looking at sexual orientation and gender identity in American art. The 13-minute video caused an uproar from Fox News, GOP politicians and the Catholic League because an 11-second shot showed ants crawling across a crucifix. While the image was created as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis and the lack of Christian empathy in fighting the disease in the early years of its discovery, opponents of it called it a form of hate speech that “assaults religion,” “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season,” and “in-your-face perversion paid for by tax dollars.”
A spokesman for House speaker John Boehner threatened that the Smithsonian would find itself under “tough scrutiny” if it didn’t pull the video from the exhibit, and like a dog with its tail tucked under, the Smithsonian bowed to right-wing pressure without a fight. It was an unprecedented move for the Smithsonian: this is the first time it has ever pulled a work from an exhibit because of political pressure.
While the Smithsonian’s daily operations are funded by taxpayer money, “Hide/Seek,” for the record, was privately funded, and only one of its criticizers, Cyber News Service’s Penny Starr, actually visited the exhibit.
The move provoked protests from artists, museums, galleries, and art critics nationwide. The New York Times labeled it “an appalling act of political cowardice.” The Association of Art Museum Directors called the decision “extremely regrettable.” LA Times art critic Christopher Knight likened it to anti-gay bullying. New York art gallery PPOW, which represents Wojnarowicz’s work, offered to ship copies of the video to anyone willing to screen in in protest.
According to Artinfo, “institutions around the world have requested copies for screenings, from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London… to the Art Institute of Chicago, to many smaller institutions and art schools.” Hundred of people took to the streets in New York and DC to protest. The Andy Warhol Foundation, which gave the Smithsonian $100,000 to help cover costs for the exhibition, threatened to discontinue its financial support of the museum if the video wasn’t put back in the show.
Looks like the Smithsonian won’t be getting any more Warhol money. The latest development in this story takes “A Fire in My Belly” out of the Smithsonian’s hands all together and places it in New York’s privately-funded Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). MoMA, which was surprisingly quiet during the whole controversy, announced last week that it bought the full version of “A Fire in My Belly” and a seven-minute excerpt made by Wojnarowicz in 1986 and 1987. It has not disclosed the purchase price.
It was the Smithsonian’s handling of public outcry that brought “A Fire in My Belly” to MoMA’s attention, which “provided us with an opportunity to look more closely at it and to deepen our engagement with this artist by adding it to our holdings of his work,” said media and performance art curator Sabine Breitwieser. Wojnarowicz, the museum stated, was “one of the most influential artists to have emerged from New York in the 1980s.”
The video went on display last Thursday as part of the museum’s “Contemporary Art from the Collection” exhibit, alongside other works made during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and early 1990s. It is now the 13th piece by Wojnarowicz featured at MoMA. The exhibit, “a focused examination of artistic practice since the late 1960s that considers how current events from the last 40 years have shaped artists’ work,” is scheduled to run through May 11.
“We endorse the position of the Association of Art Museum Directors,” MoMA said in an email to Reuters, “which states the freedom of expression is essential to the health and welfare of our communities and our nation.”
“While we expect a range of reactions to the piece, they will not affect the Museum’s decision to display it in what is an appropriate context. MoMA has a commitment to artists such as Wojnarowicz who critically engage with difficult and challenging themes and ideas in their work,” MoMA issued in their statement. “While we respect the diversity of reactions a work of art allows, we are committed to continuing to show David Wojnarowicz’s work.”
“They are standing behind the film and making a statement,” said PPOW co-owner Wendy Olsoff. “For a powerful, important and historic museum to make this statement, I’m thrilled.”
While most of the art world is pleased to see the video get another life at MoMA, there are some who are acute to point out that the underlying issues behind the censorship and purchase of “A Fire in My Belly” go deeper than gay art versus the Catholic Church.
Beneath that binary is an entire exploration of how sexuality is treated in art, religion, and politics, and while MoMA is fulfilling a museum’s duty of ensuring that the public has access to art pieces that visually depict critical points of American history, it also needs to step up the accompanying duty of using these acquisitions to cultivate the public on what these specific artworks mean in terms of how history has dealt with various forms of identity politics.
Jonathan Katz, who curated “Hide/Seek” at the Smithsonian and objected to the video’s removal, said he hopes the purchase will change how museums discuss sexuality in art. “They have the work, and display the work, of many queer artists,” he said. “The issue is, are they talking about art, politics and sexuality? If they are not doing that, then it doesn’t matter if they have the video.”
It’s not enough to show the work if you’re not educating the public on the piece’s relevance. But at least MoMA is taking a step in the right direction by sticking up for influential art, allowing it to create dialogue, and showing that the healthiest societies are the ones where people openly debate as opposed to shut each other up.
Photo courtesy of Ryan Kozie via Flickr