Teaching with Contemporary Art

Teaching with David Wojnarowicz (and Not Teaching with the Smithsonian)

David Wojnarowicz, "Night Train Dream" 1983 P.P.O.W Gallery

In light of the recent debacle at the Smithsonian involving the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly, I thought it might make sense to suggest some ways educators can get involved and make a stand in the midst of the controversy. While many may not have the opportunity to teach with the film itself or even work with films like it in the classroom, there’s no one saying we can’t teach with the events that have unfolded like laundry left sitting in the washing machine for a few days.

First of all, if you want a blow by blow account of the whole scenario, I would definitely check out Tyler Green’s Modern Art Notes, which has been on top of the situation from minute one. After you’ve done that, you may want to cancel any future school trips, personal visits, or financial contributions to the museum until G. Wayne Clough decides it’s finally time to speak in public about this, take some questions, and put the Wojnarowicz work back in the show. If the Mapplethorpe and Warhol Foundations are cutting funding, perhaps we should, too.

The next step may involve developing some questions you’d like to discuss with students. Questions such as:

  • Does a museum have the right to remove work previously approved for an exhibition?
  • Is censorship ever a good thing? If so, who has the right to decide what is “acceptable” when it comes to art?
  • How does this series of events compare to previous attempts (both failed and successful) at censorship? What are the similarities and differences?
  • How does censoring this work affect how it is viewed? For example, did Bill Donohue’s detestable statement and the events that have taken place as a result actually promote the work he finds an example of “hate speech”?

Finally, asking students to look into the symbols and metaphors Wojnarowicz used to speak with his art can allow for a gradual understanding of the work vs. a quick peek followed by harsh judgement. Let’s face it, that particular approach didn’t work for Rudy Giuliani at the Brooklyn Museum years ago and there’s no reason it should happen here, either. Getting past uncomfortable images, symbols and metaphors, in order to uncover the reasons particular images are used to make specific statements seems like a pretty worthwhile goal, especially in this case.

Contributor
Joe Fusaro is the senior education advisor for Art21, and has written Art21’s “Teaching with Contemporary Art” column since 2008. He is an exhibiting artist and visual arts chair for the Nyack Public Schools in New York; and an adjunct instructor for New York University’s Graduate Program in Art and Arts Professions.
  1. Andrew says:

    The questions are more than a little leading. What’s the point in asking the questions, if you’re already telling them your answers?

    Reply

  2. Joe Fusaro says:

    That’s funny… I asked some of these questions to students who were not familiar with the controversy and got a variety of answers, especially to the first two.

    Reply

  3. Thank you for the suggestions on how to start a discussion about censorship in the arts. I can see how one might get a range of answers to the first two questions.
    Many people have protested the censorship of Wojnarowicz’s video and the erasure of BLU’s mural at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. However, there hasn’t been much media attention on the removal of George Beattie’s murals from the Georgia State Department of Agriculture. Because the newly elected commissioner Gary Black found the works objectionable (they include depictions of slavery), he ordered them to be removed and placed into storage. Some people argue that the commissioner’s actions are censorship. Others are glad to see the murals go.
    I realize that your focus is on issues in contemporary art and not mid-20th century works. However, I’m mentioning this issue because it indicates the complex nature of images, politics, and censorship.
    For more information on the Georgia murals, see http://www.newsday.com/news/nation/slavery-paintings-coming-down-from-atlanta-office-1.2575724 and

    Reply

  4. Joe Fusaro says:

    Thank you so much for this info. As we can see, it’s high time to start (resume) fighting for the rights of artists to exhibit works that confront difficult subjects in different ways. I’ll also be interested in what you think of today’s post! Thanks again.

    Reply

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