Revolution #223, January 23, 2011

Smithsonian Censors Fire in My Belly

From a reader

"I want to throw up because we're supposed to quietly and politely make house in this killing machine called America and pay taxes to support our own slow murder and I'm amazed we're not running amok in the streets, and that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this." (from Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, by David Wojnarowiczwhose work was recently banned from the Smithsonian)

On October 30, 2010, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Washington, D.C. opened a new exhibit entitled "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." For many, hopes were high that this signaled a major milestone. A report on National Public Radio (NPR) said that Hide/Seek "marks the first time a major museum in the United States has dedicated an entire exhibition to gay and lesbian portraiture."

The major exhibit contains work by artists as diverse and prominent as Thomas Eakins, Peter Hujar, Annie Leibovitz, Felix Gonzalez‑Torres, Nan Goldin, Marsden Hartley, David Hockney, Georgia O'Keeffe, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Mapplethorpe, Agnes Martin, and Andy Warhol. The Washington Post ran an extensive review praising Hide/Seek as an overdue project whose time had finally come, saying it "surveys how same‑sex love has been portrayed in art, from Walt Whitman's hints to open declarations in the era of AIDS and Robert Mapplethorpe's bullwhips." And the Post, too, noted that "Amazingly, this is the first major museum show to tackle the topic."

But to powerful right-wing forces, the exhibit was intolerable, especially because it was associated with the Smithsonian. On November 29, the right-wing media site CNS News launched the attack on Hide/Seek, damning the exhibit as "images of an ant‑covered Jesus, male genitals, naked brothers kissing, men in chains, Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, and a painting the Smithsonian itself describes in the show's catalog as ‘homoerotic.'" The Catholic League's president Bill Donohue denounced the exhibit and specifically attacked an excerpt of a video by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, Fire in My Belly, as "hate speech" against Christians.

The very next day, November 30, two top Republicans, House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor issued statements calling for the closing of the exhibit. "This is an outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season," said Cantor. "When a museum receives taxpayer money, the taxpayers have a right to expect that the museum will uphold common standards of decency. The museum should pull the exhibit and be prepared for serious questions come budget time."

The head of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, responded to the threats not by defending the exhibit and calling out the gross attempts at its censorship but by hastily capitulating in a poisonous "compromise"—keeping the exhibit open while pulling the four-minute video excerpt of Fire in My Belly.

The film IS a stinging cry of protest—a montage of images against poverty, suppression and... Catholicism: it was a tribute to a fellow artist who had died of AIDS. It is a disturbing, provoking, angry piece of art. Wojnarowicz was a prolific visual artist, musician and writer. He wrote about the need for the "private," including the expression and exploration of gay sexuality, to be in the public discourse. Wojnarowicz himself was courageous and outspoken against the censorship of art. He spoke out against the attacks on artists Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe and criticized the cowardice of museums and galleries. Shortly after creating Fire in My Belly, Wojnarowicz was diagnosed with AIDS. He wrote in bold caps, "WHEN I WAS TOLD I'D CONTRACTED THIS VIRUS IT DIDN'T TAKE ME LONG TO REALIZE THAT I'D CONTRACTED A DISEASED SOCIETY AS WELL." So in the late 1980s he became an activist against the government's and medical establishment's criminal lack of attention, energy and funding in halting the spread of the disease, or trying to find a cure, while AIDS was decimating gays, Blacks and poor people, and AIDS victims were demonized.

A History…

In 1989 a huge controversy, a result and an expression of the rise of Christian fascism, erupted over public funding for the arts. Right-wing Senators Jesse Helms and Alfonse D'Amato attacked the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for funding an exhibit that included the work Piss Christ by artist Andres Serrano (a photo of a plastic crucified Christ submerged in the artist's urine). Then the Corcoran Gallery abruptly canceled a major photo exhibition with sexually explicit images by the late gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe rather than risk its NEA funding. Also in 1989, student artist Dread Scott displayed the U.S. flag on the floor (What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?) at a showing in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the school lost its state funding for that year.

The Hide/Seek exhibit's co-curator David C. Ward alluded to some of this history when he described the process of creating the exhibit: "[W]e evolved a discussion about the silence and contribution of LGBT artists in the creation of modern portraiture, a silence that seemed only to have gotten worse after the Mapplethorpe controversy of 1989. ... I was interested in the question intellectually, but also because the NPG has a commitment to show the diversity of the American people and the full range of this country's history. Moreover, it's a visually very striking exhibition so we hit all the notes for a successful exhibition."

Twenty-one years later, powerful politicians, right-wing media and religious organizations have effected censoring of a critically acclaimed exhibit on the history of LGBT art and artists in America. This exhibit is housed in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian, a U.S. government education, science, arts and research institute with 6,300 employees, so big it has its own police force. It is the largest museum complex in the world.

The Smithsonian claims that they pulled the film because "Attention to this particular video imagery and the way in which it was being interpreted by many overshadowed the importance and understanding of the entire exhibition." This is bullshit, double-talk and untrue on its face. The controversy has garnered the attention and interest of millions around the world who would have never heard of Hide/Seek otherwise. The decision to pull the film was, as the New York Times said, an "appalling act of political cowardice."


After the Smithsonian withdrew the film, colleges and private galleries and museums across the country have held screenings or ongoing showings of Fire in My Belly including: Portland State University; Smith College; Stanford University; University of Chicago; UC Irvine; University of Pennsylvania; the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Hammer Museum; International Center of Photography, N.Y.; Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE); Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh; Light Work, Syracuse, N.Y.; Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; San Francisco MOMA; Wood Street Galleries, Pittsburgh; and Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. (For more listings see

On January 13, New York City's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) announced it had acquired the full version of Fire in My Belly, and began showing it that day as part of its exhibition, "Contemporary Art from the Collection." The four-minute excerpted version edited for the exhibit has been posted for viewing by the gallery PPOW (which represents the estate of Wojnarowicz.) PPOW has also posted the full-length work ( And another version has been posted on YouTube.

A few days after the video was pulled from the Smithsonian, about 100 people held a protest march on the National Portrait Gallery. Protesters held up an image from the film, Wojnarowicz' face, his lips sewn together with red thread. There was also a protest in New York City on December 19, calling on people to "Stand up for free expression, for art that challenges and even pushes our buttons."

Two protesters who played the video on an iPad outside the National Portrait Gallery were detained by police and banned from the Smithsonian for a year. Undaunted, the two got a trailer, have parked it outside the Portrait Gallery, dubbed it the Museum of Censored Art, and vow to show Fire in My Belly continuously until the Hide/Seek exhibit closes in February.

The Canadian artist AA Bronson has demanded that the Smithsonian remove his work "Felix" from the Hide/Seek exhibit. And the Andy Warhol Foundation, a major funder of the exhibit, has said that they will no longer fund Smithsonian exhibitions unless the film is put back in. (Hide/Seek was actually funded by private foundations and not public monies, though the Smithsonian buildings are provided through government funds.)


This high-level suppression calls for and has spurred protest. More is needed. It is also a potent example of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie in the realm of art. Much of the art in the exhibit reveals and cries out against the marginalizing and oppression of gay people under capitalism and needs to be seen by broader sections of people.

This battle also underlines the importance of art in any society, in challenging the norm, and art's role in exploring the world from different angles, and concentrating in its own way the clash of ideas. And it points to why, under the dictatorship of the proletariat, in a liberated socialist society, the approach must be for the government to fund art, including very importantly those projects that are controversial.


A protest is scheduled for January 20 in Los Angeles against the Fire in My Belly incident as well as the whitewashing of an antiwar mural by the artist Blu.

The Hide/Seek exhibit, minus Fire in My Belly, remains open through February 13, and ironically has in it two other works by Wojnarowicz. Video walkthrough of exhibit at

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