Outraged Museums and Artists Unite in Protest of Smithsonian Censorship

Outraged Museums and Artists Unite in Protest of Smithsonian Censorship

For the last few days the art world has been roiled by news ofSmithsonian Institution secretary G. Wayne Cloughs decision to remove a video by David Wojnarowicz from a show at the National Portrait Gallery, following protests from conservative Republicans and Catholic groups. "A Fire in My Belly," Wojnarowicz's 1987 video, features images of ants crawling over a crucifix, and had been part of the Gallery's "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" exhibition on sexual identity. In response to the Smithsonian's disgraceful act of censorship, a remarkable array of museums, galleries, and artists have come together to decry the suppression of the work.

New York gallery PPOW, which represents the Wojnarowicz estate, swiftly issued a statementcondemning the NPG's decision to take down the video, calling CatholicLeague president William Donohue's inflammatory statement that "A Fire in My Belly" was "hate speech" an "insult to the legacy of Wojnarowicz, who dedicated his life to activism and the arts community."The gallery has now posted the controversial video online, and is offering to ship DVD copies to any group willing to screen it in protest.

This morning, PPOW co-owner Wendy Olsoff told ARTINFO thatshe had been deluged with requests. New York's New Museum was the first major institution to highlight the video, and curator Eungie Joo is currently showing "A Fire in My Belly" in its lobby. "I have to give theNew Museum credit," said Olsoff. "Another major museum wanted to do it. The curator tried but could not get the board to agree."

The New Museum seems unlikely to stand alone for long, however. Olsoff says that institutionsaround the world have requested copies for screenings, from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, which is planning to do an event focusing on the controversy on Wednesday (titled "Witness Against Our Vanishing: Erasure at the Smithsonian"), to the Art Institute of Chicago, to many smaller institutions and art schools.

A representative of the Indianapolis Museum of Art told ARTINFO that plans were underway to install a Wojnarowicz poster, "Untitled (One Day This Kid…)," in the museum's welcome center as part of what is fast becoming an international solidarity campaign.

One smaller institution that immediately launched a public screening of the video was the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Transformer, which began showing the YouTube clip of "A Fire in My Belly" in its window on Wednesday. About 100 protesters, many of them artists, came out for a demonstration called by Transformer on Thursday, donning masks featuring the faces of Wojnarowicz and French poet Arthur Rimbaud — a gesture inspiredby the artist's famous photo series that had him pose wearing paper Rimbaud masks — to hold a silent vigil outside the NPG.  

"This is a sign of solidarity and a call to our lawmakers that silence equals death," Transformer executive director Victoria Reis declared during the event,according to the Washington Post. "It's an attack on the American people," photographer Dawoud Bey, also in attendance, was quoted as saying. (Video of the vigil is availableonline.)

The Washington City Paper reports that D.C. activists Mike Blasenstein and Mike Iacovone were detained by police and banned for life from any Smithsonian Institution facility after attempting to show "A Fire in My Belly" on an iPad inside the museum on Saturday.

In New York, about 30 people showed up to an emergency organizing meeting held at Participant Inc. on Thursday to plan aresponse to the National Portrait Gallery's suppression of Wojnarowicz's work. A second meeting is planned at Exit Art on the 15th, and a protest of some kind is scheduled for the 19th. Meanwhile, the New York Public Library will host a talk with the curators of "Hide/Seek," Jonathan Katz and DavidWard, also on the 15th. (The go-to resource for those trying to keep up with actions surrounding the David Wojnarowicz controversy is the Facebook group "SupportHide/Seek.")

On Friday, the Association of Art Museum Directors issued an unusually strong rebuke to the Smithsonian Institution and the National Portrait Gallery, calling the decision to cave into pressure from conservatives "extremely regrettable." The AAMD concludes that "[d]iscouraging the exchange of ideas undermines the principles of freedom of expression, plurality and tolerance on which our nation was founded. This includes the forcible withdrawal of a work of art from within an exhibition — and the threatening of an institution's funding sources."

At a moment when the country remains riven by economic uncertainty and haunted by recent suicides of gay youngsters, this seeming return of the culture wars — with flames fanned by pundits like Donohue, known for such petty stunts as crusading against Cosmo Cavallaro's "Chocolate Jesus" in New York — has set alarm bells ringing throughout the art world. However, PPOW's Olsoff saw a silver lining. "The controversy is exposing a lot of new people to the work," she told ARTINFO. "It's a lot of young people who are involved with this, new people who don't have experience with activism,but are outraged."