Friday, December 3, 2010

Fire in My Belly by David Wojnarowicz, Censored at the Smithsonian

Fire in My Belly, David Wojnarowicz (1987)
Music by Diamanda Galas

David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) was a painter, writer, filmmaker and performance artist who died of AIDS-related complications in 1992 at 37. In 1990 he won an important lawsuit against conservative Christian Donald Wildmon's American Family Association, who'd appropriated some of his work for one its tracts. The judgment read, in part,
[David Wojnarowicz] earns his living by selling his art works, many of which are assertedly directed at bringing attention to the devastation wrought upon the homosexual community by the AIDS epidemic. Plaintiff attempts through his work to expose what he views as the failure of the United States government and public to confront the AIDS epidemic in any meaningful way. To this end, plaintiff's art at times incorporates sexually explicit images for the avowed purpose of shaping community attitudes towards sexuality. As a result, his works have been the subject of controversy and public debate concerning government funding of non-traditional art.

[...] On or about April 12, 1990, the AFA and Wildmon published and distributed throughout the United States, including the Southern District of New York, the AFA pamphlet (the "pamphlet") in an effort to stop public funding by the NEA of art works such as plaintiff's. The pamphlet was mailed to 523 members of Congress, 3,230 Christian leaders, 947 Christian radio stations and 1,578 newspapers, at least twenty-eight of which were located in this district. Without plaintiff's authorization, Wildmon photographically copied fourteen fragments of plaintiff's works which he believed most offensive to the public and reproduced these fragments in the AFA pamphlet. These fourteen images, with three exceptions, explicitly depict sexual acts. The other three images portray Christ with a hypodermic needle inserted in his arm, and two ambiguous scenes which plaintiff represents as respectively depicting an African purification ritual and two men dancing together.

Wildmon wrote the text of the pamphlet, which is entitled "Your Tax Dollars Helped Pay For These `Works of Art.'" It states in the introductory sentence that "the photographs appearing on this sheet were part of the David Wajnarowicz [sic] 'Tongues of Flame' exhibit catalog." The envelope in which the AFA pamphlet was mailed states that the "[p]hotos enclosed in this envelope were taken from the catalog of the `Tongues of Flame' exhibit" and is marked "Caution — Contains Extremely Offensive Material."

Wojnarowicz only received a dollar when he won the suit, but he succeeded in preventing Wildmon from distributing altered images of his artwork for his hate campaign--and won a rare victory in the early years of the culture wars.

Untitled (1990), David Wojnarowicz
(in collaboration with Phil Zwickler and Rosa von Praunheim)
still from the film "Silence = Death"

Eighteen years after his death Wojnarowicz's art is still disturbing Christian conservatives, who are still arguing that taxpayer money should not support it, only this time he isn't winning... His video Fire in My Belly (1987) appeared in the National Portrait Gallery show Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture until it was removed on November 30th. It had been on display since the show opened a month earlier but objections to an image of ants crawling on a plastic crucifix in it's first few seconds led by Catholic League President William Donohue, who called the video "vile... hate speech," impelled the Smithsonian to remove it from display. The office of Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the presumptive incoming speaker of the House also issued a statement that read, "American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy. While the amount of money involved may be small, it's symbolic of the arrogance Washington routinely applies to thousands of spending decisions involving Americans' hard-earned money." (As part of the Smithsonian the National Gallery receives public funds.) These are shockingly similar to the attacks Wojnarowicz withstood when he was alive and using his art to shock an apathetic public into acknowledging the human cost of the AIDS crisis that ultimately ended his life. The fact that they are still being made is not that shocking considering the enormous percentage of loud, stupid D-bags swarming all over public life in this country like ants on a dropped popsicle. What is shocking is that they still work.

The fact that this happened the day before World AIDS Day is a sickening reminder of how little ground has been gained. The video, which attempts to represent the physical and emotional pain caused by AIDS, is primitive by today's standards. But the punk, DIY quality of it is a visceral reminder that it is a time capsule from 1987, when brilliant artists like David Wojnarowicz were getting sick and dying so, so young. Watch Fire in My Belly above and give it a minute. If you suspend your 21st century cynicism and let the historical context reach you, you may have a brief echo of what it was like to work in the arts then and watch helplessly as people you cared about died all around you for no reason, while the President blithely ignored the crisis.


Diamanda Galás Responds to the Smithsonian’s Removal of David Wojnarowicz’s Work:

Diamanda Galás, the composer and performer of the This is the Law of the Plague (1986), which is the soundtrack to part of Wojnarowicz's Fire in My Belly responded to its removal from the Hide/Seek exhibition by the Smithsonian. She writes,

The cross is a symbol of the CRUCIFIXION, among the cruelest tortures in the world. This is the sentence of slow and horrific death in which the spinal column breaks and the organs rupture. This is the torture for the worst of outlaws – the man who protested that the sick and the poor were not allowed into the church for the crime of being perceived as UNCLEAN, rather than "pristine," and moneyed for his advocacy that the church BE a sanctuary to the sick, rather than a citadel for the rich family man, who comes to exchange invitations for tea and other such serious matters with OTHER rich family men.

David Wojnarowicz was a great artist who died a terrible death in 1992. It was one of the worst times in this country for people with AIDS. My brother, Philip-Dimitri Galas, died six years before him in 1986 of the same disease in San Diego. THERE WAS NO HOPE WHATSEOVER THEN FOR THIS DISEASE.

So what is so shocking about the truth now in 2010? Does it remind the clergy and the lawmakers of what the cross stands for: PUNISHMENT AND SAVAGE CRUELTY, and make ugly with the NICE and FRIENDLY WARM xmas spirit?

WHO in countries other than our own are dying horrific death of AIDS this Christmas? Christmas comes but once a year.

AND YOUR LIFE? It comes to you but once.

Diamanda Galás
NYC, Dec 2 2010


  1. lol. Thanks to these Christian douche-bags, now I know who David Wojnarowicz is, and now I've seen the banned film. Thanks :-D

  2. Sabina, you'd like Wojnarowicz. Check out his Close to the Knives, his memoir.

    You should also check out Richard Kern's short films. They are amazing, do you know them? (Wojnarowicz worked with Kern.) You can get the collected shorts from Amazon pretty cheaply but there's also stuff you can just see on YouTube for free. I'm a huge Kern fan.

  3. I'm a huge Wojnarowicz fan and for the years I was teaching classes on the self portrait always had my students read Close to the Knives. It's brilliant. Thanks for posting the video.