Perhaps ignorantly thinking that the culture wars related to David Wojnarowicz were over, I originally intended to reflect on the long-term effects of A Fire In My Belly (1986-7) in HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery from the perspective of one year after the controversy. However a week before the HIDE/SEEK exhibition even opened at the Brooklyn Museum, the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, as well as several newspapers, were calling for the museum to remove Wojnarowicz’s unfinished film.
With protesters now traveling from Pennsylvania to picket the exhibition, a look into the effects of the A Fire In My Belly controversy gains a new urgency, as another battle begins in the new culture wars.
A little over a year ago on December 1, which is also A Day Without Art or World AIDS Day, the Smithsonian, bowing to pressure from House Republicans John Boehner and Eric Cantor, removed Wojnarowicz’s A Fire In My Belly. Responding to complaints from the National Catholic League, the House Republicans and others objected to an eleven second clip of the film portraying ants crawling over a crucifix. Fortunately, many museums took action and placed the film on display and in their collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum and the Andy Warhol Museum. Despite the controversy, the Brooklyn Museum, as well as the Tacoma Museum, received the travelling exhibition of HIDE/SEEK with the film and furthered the importance of educating the public on Wojnarowicz’s work with a room dedicated to explaining A Fire In My Belly.
While the Brooklyn Museum is dealing with a new round of outrage regarding A Fire In My Belly, conjuring a nagging sense that we are doomed to repeat the culture wars over and over again whether it is with Wojnarowicz, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano or Chris Ofili, the question remains what will be the lasting effects of this battle on Wojnarowicz’s work, future curatorial decisions and the politics of art.
Beginning with the film specifically, A Fire In My Belly has been subject to a large amount of misinformation, not only from the religious and political right, but also from art critics, curators, and other art enthusiasts. Unlike many of the reports, A Fire In My Belly is not about AIDS. Made before both Wojnarowicz’s friend, mentor, and lover Peter Hujar’s death from complications from AIDS and Wojnarowicz’s own diagnosis, the work originated from a trip he made to Mexico for the Day of the Dead with Tommy Turner. Never finished, A Fire In My Belly is in two parts: a thirteen minute version with an additional reel of seven minutes, which contains the ants on Christ portion that was selected for the edited film in the HIDE/SEEK exhibition.
Rather than a film about AIDS, a view which was most likely perpetuated by its use in Rosa von Praunheim’s film Silence = Death, A Fire In My Belly is a film about oppression and power. Cynthia Carr, a former Village Voice writer who is now in the process of editing her expertly researched forthcoming biography on Wojnarowicz, found a never-published letter explaining the film that was written by Wojnarowicz to curator Barry Blinderman (of Illinois State University), the curator of Wojnarowicz’s retrospective Tongues of Flame. As Wojnarowicz writes in his letter to Blinderman: “The film deals with ancient myth and its modern counterpart. It explores structures of power and control, using at times the fire ants north of Mexico City as a metaphor for social structure.”
Carr explained that Wojnarowicz brought the crucifix, as well as coins and other elements in the film, knowing he would find fire ants in Mexico. Wojnarowicz used ants frequently in his visual art, completing an entire series with ants crawling all over clocks, coins and of course, the infamous crucifix, illustrating how humanity is rushing past time, money and spirituality.
While A Fire In My Belly remains a powerful film, the controversy has certainly affected Wojnarowicz’s legacy both positively and negatively. On one hand, most people, including younger art lovers, now know of David Wojnarowicz. Marvin Taylor, director of Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University and curator of the Downtown Collection (which holds the David Wojnarowicz papers) believes, “David’s work looks vital as ever and this controversy has introduced a new generation to his work.”
Wendy Olsoff, director of the PPOW Gallery that represents Wojnarowicz’s estate, agrees that queer kids in the Midwest who are being bullied are now more likely to turn to Wojnarowicz’s work as a source for comfort. However, she also counters, “Wojnarowicz’s legacy has been tarnished. Ants on Christ has taken over his work.”
While the controversy has certainly set up a forum for discussion on Wojnarowicz’s work, as Taylor points out, the focus on A Fire In My Belly and the religious anger surrounding it has overshadowed the HIDE/SEEK exhibition, which is certainly more than a show about ants on Christ. As Olsoff explains, “The Right has used David. So that everyone is talking about ants on Christ and not gay portraiture. It has taken away the importance of the show and therefore, the Right has won.” Carr agrees, “It was discouraging to me that the attack on him was really an attack on the show. Boehner said take down the show not just the video.”
So who has won the culture wars? Most of the individuals I interviewed were frustrated by the response from the left versus the sheer media power of the right. As Olsoff states, “The culture wars were lost. There is no real NEA.”
However the response from certain museums and others in the art world certainly does point to lessons learned from the previous culture wars in the 1990s, particularly the educational room in the Brooklyn Museum’s version of the exhibition.
The most heartbreaking aspect of the entire debacle is that Wojnarowicz is not here to fight it, which he unquestionably would. No stranger to the culture wars himself with his controversial essay for the Artist’s Space exhibition Witnesses Against Our Vanishing, Wojnarowicz’s booming, protesting voice has been silenced, yet his work and those who study, admire and love it continue to fight for him. As Wojnarowicz states in “Do Not Doubt the Dangerousness of the 12-inch Politician,” published in his essay collection Close to the Knives, “When I was a kid, I discovered that making an object, whether it was a drawing or a story, meant making something that spoke even if I was silent. As an adult, I realize if I make something and leave it in public for any period of time, I can create an environment where that object or writing acts as a magnet and draws others with a similar reference out of silence of invisibility.”
Emily Colucci is a contributor to Hyperallergic and works at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.