more integrity, please
Protesters in Washington D.C., photo via The Washington Post.
The National Portrait Gallery’s hasty removal of David Wojnarowicz’s Fire in My Belly (1986-7) from the exhibit Hide/Seek was a dishearteningly soft-spined reaction to the onslaught of negative reactions. A short segment of the 4-minute video showed ants crawling over a bleeding crucifix, part of disjointed montages of violent, sometimes pornographic images which comprise the video as a whole. The segment was criticized as being “Anti-Christian”.
The brutality of Fire in My Belly works, in part, as a means for eliciting an empathetic response and to encourage a greater awareness and understanding of the issues facing gay men in the 80s. Instead, the potentially constructive intention of the work is overlooked, and the same tired anti-Christian, violent and pornographic elements of the work, all of which saturate mass media, are brought to the fore and discussed as though new.
Fire in My Belly screening in the New Museum’s lobby. Image via Hyperallergic.
In many ways, the strong backlash to the work–first by Bill Donahue, and later by John Boehner and Eric Cantor (who makes the ridiculous assertion that the video was meant to upset Christians during Christmastime), works to emphasize Wojnarowicz’s underlying point—that the underrepresented, ignored and stigmatized gay man in the 80s needs a more prominent voice. The recent controversy over the work only furthers Wojnarowicz’s point that real social issues are easily overshadowed by petty sensationalist debates. By removing the work, the National Picture Gallery is inadvertently mimicking the historically negative responses to works such as Fire in My Belly.
The creator of the actual conflict is not the offended Right, nor is it Wojnarowicz. The National Portrait Gallery’s ill-planned reaction to public opinion undermines its own sense of autonomy, and the institution’s reliance on public opinion and funding is once again exposed. (Though funding for Hide/Seek was not federal, the majority of the funding which sustains the National Portrait Gallery is). This eagerness to appease the public has created controversy out of many a work that only becomes problematic in the context of the ‘public’. Was Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981) so offensive? Or Daniel Buren’s attempted installation at the Guggenheim (1971) such an eye-sore? Is violent imagery and Christinaity so foreign? The difference which unsettles the public has itself become a trope and our reactions to familiar images have become conditioned by popular culture. (Which is why sometimes the insular world of art, where a wall drawing has the capacity to be more subversive and substantive than b-movie motifs, is better than the real world).
The National Portrait Gallery has released an official statement in which it claims to “stand firmly” behind the exhibition. What they should stand up for is themselves–their power and authority as a respected American institution; for the strength and relevancy of the work–for the integrity of a complete curatorial vision. An exhibit which explores queerness in American portraiture should be one which is prepared to deal with negative reactions through dialogue and programming which offer constructive additions to the show.
video via YouTube
While it is a positive gesture for other institutions to show the video in protest (the New Museum and Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, among others) it shows a decided lack of solidarity with the National Portrait Gallery and seems more a media ploy to tout the open-mindedness of their own museums. As institutional peers, they should urge the National Picture Gallery to restore the work to its place within Hide/Seek, as screening it in safe contexts outside the controversial exhibit do not address the greater issues at hand.
An excerpt of Fire in My Belly is on view in the lobby of the New Museum through January 23, 2011.
Read the National Portrait Gallery’s official statement.