Here's the latest on the Smithsonian's censorship of David Wojnarowicz's video "A Fire in My Belly".
Smithsonian Institution's Governing Board Seeks Changes After Video Flap at Portrait Gallery Associated Press, 2/1/11
By: Brett Zongker
WASHINGTON (AP).- The Smithsonian Institution's governing board on Monday called for changes in how potentially objectionable exhibits are handled while also standing behind the head of the museum complex amid accusations of censorship. http://bit.ly/fqxogq
SPACES will screen "A Fire in My Belly" through February 13th (the date through which it should have remained on view at the National Portrait Gallery) in The Vault.
In the Life produced a brief documentary about the censorship of the Wojnarowicz video form the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition Hide/Seek. The video is included below for your consideration.
Recently, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough has stepped forward to talk about the controversy surrounding the piece and its subsequent removal from the exhibition (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/18/AR2011011806129.html). Up to this point, the Smithsonian has remained tight-lipped about their decision, thereby creating an information vacuum. Most of the news and information about the issue have been coming from the viewpoint of the protesters.
At the heart of censorship is a refute of dialog. It is a removal of one viewpoint, so that viewpoint cannot be expressed. By removing Wojnarowicz's work, the Smithsonian censored themselves once. By then not speaking about it, they willfully censored themselves a second time. In the remaining information vacuum, what is left is often only dogma and sound bites—from both sides.
The In the Life documentary is a good example of what happens when a dialog is shut down. It is a one-sided presentation. It is perhaps more level-headed than the protests that resulted in the pulling of the video, but it is still heavily biased and makes no concessions for the Smithsonian.
What seems to be missing form most all the coverage and statements made by individuals and organizations regarding the Wojnarowicz/Smithsonian issue is actual dialog. There has been a lot of posturing, a lot of accusations, and a lot of lines drawn in the sand, but acknowledgment of difficulties, collegial attitudes, and a healthy back-and-forth have been missing. Censorship negates a back-and-forth exchange, and therefore teaches intolerance.
I commend PPOW Gallery for getting the video out into the public in a very egalitarian and open way to allow people to see the work and make decisions for themselves about the merit of the work. They gracefully have been able to navigate this political storm to shine more light on Wojnarowicz's key issues and keep a dialog open.
At least the Smithsonian's Clough stated, "We needed to spend more time letting our friends know where this was going. I regret that." Hopefully, moving forward, that lesson learned is applied and the Smithsonian (And other organizations) don't censor themselves twice.
I am, perhaps unfortunately, thinking about the upshot of the media attention recently garnered by The National Portrait Gallery for its censorship of the David Wojnarowicz film A Fire in my Belly. And, on the heels of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I am thinking about freedom.
It seems clear, once again, that the civil rights so passionately fought for just a few decades ago can not be taken for granted. Conversations about what is truly our collective history--the Stonewall riots, the presence of HIV and AIDS, the politics of diversity--remain relevant and desperately needed. While I would never wish for the kind of censorship we've all been witness to, I have to be thankful that more people will be exposed to, and reminded of, the work of artists like David Wojnarowicz and the forum for dialogue and understanding that it provides.
Here's a link to Untitled (Burning Man), the first piece of Wojnarowicz's that I was privileged to see, during my first years at Oberlin College: http://bit.ly/ew1Rmc. I can recall being startled by its power, and humbled by its messages. Having a visual language when we think about these issues is so important.
If you're interested in other issues of censorship, check out the National Coalition Against Censorship: http://www.ncac.org/
Manager, SPACES World Artists Program
The art world is often known for a lack of sincerity. This is not entirely true, but it is also not untrue. An embracing of sarcasm and irony not only in the art world, but in popular culture, have managed to distance individuals from each other. Ideology in art is hidden behind hipness and style or abandoned for fear of being criticized; expressions of love are couched in hackneyed phrases quoted form movies; protest is set aside because no one wants to be caught being sincere; dogma overrules dialog because it is more easily quoted and requires less self-examination.
On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, let us remember what it is like to believe, hope, and be sincere—to stand up for something because it is a personal truth and not dogma; to disagree and agree, not because others do, but because we have pondered and wrestled with the issues; to have open dialogs rather than closed monologues; and to love our fellow men (and women) even if we disagree with them.
Now through February 13, 2011, SPACES will be screening the censored David Wojnarowicz film A Fire in My Belly in The Vault, SPACES' digital audio/visual space.
The National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian made a decision on December 1, 2010 to remove from the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture (http://npg.si.edu/exhibit/hideseek) a film by the artist David Wojnarowicz. Their decision was made after protests lead by the Catholic League and several members of Congress. In particular, the scenes in the film that the Catholic League found offensive were views of ants crawling over a figurine of Christ on the cross.
Wojnarowicz is no stranger to controversy, as much of his art dealt with AIDS and H.I.V. during the 1980s. A Fire in My Belly, the film in question, was made from 1986 to 1987, a particularly tumultuous time for the artist. In 1987 Wojnarowicz's mentor and lover died of AIDS, and David learned that he himself was H.I.V.-positive. Drawing from his personal experiences in Catholic school and his travels, Wojnarowicz said that he used the imagery of Christ to "make a symbol that would show that [Christ] would take on the suffering of the vast amounts of addiction that I saw on the streets. And I did this because I saw very little treatment available for people who had this illness."
SPACES stands by the estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W. gallery in calling an end to single-sided debates and censorship regarding AIDS, H.I.V. and queer identities in favor of information and dialogue. SPACES presents for the public two versions of the film A Fire in My Belly so that the public may be informed and decide for themselves where they stand on the issue.
David Wojnarowicz, A Fire In My Belly (Film In Progress) (film still), 1986-87, Super 8mm film, black and white & color (transferred to video). Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York and The Fales Library and Special Col
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