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U.S. artists campaign against art censorship at the Smithsonian, 2010-2011
Late seminal gay artist David Wojnarowicz created video work “A Fire in My Belly” as an expression of his outrage at the 1980’s AIDS epidemic, his own AIDS diagnosis, and the death of his lover and mentor, Peter Hujar. Curator Jonathon Katz included “A Fire in My Belly” in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery show, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, in Washington, DC. There was immediate outrage, not by museum goers, but by right-wing politicians and the Catholic League over an 11 second segment of Wojnarowicz’s video in which ants are shown crawling over a plastic crucifix. Catholic League president William Donohue labeled it “hate speech,” while incoming house majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va) and House Republican leader John Boehner expressed their anger at tax-payer dollars contributing to something they deemed offensive and “anti-Christian.” In fact Boehner pushed for the removal of the exhibition all together.
In November of 2010, after one month, “A Fire in My Belly” was removed from the exhibit by Smithsonian head G. Wayne Clough. The museum denied giving way to political pressures, instead saying that the “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.”
The Andy Warhol Foundation immediately withdrew financial support from the exhibit, threatening not to return until the video was reinstated.
On December 13, 2010, Mike Blasenstein stood at the exhibit’s entrance playing “A Fire in My Belly” on his iPad around his neck while attempting to distribute flyers regarding censorship. After a mere ten minutes, Blasenstein and videographer Mike Iacorone were wrestled to the ground by guards. The Smithsonian banned both men from their museums for a year. In response, Blasenstein and Iacorone rented a trailer and parking spaces outside of the museum in protest until the exhibit’s closing on February 13. Under the name “The Museum of Censored Art,” they had volunteers working full time getting passers-by to sign petitions to restore the video to the gallery.
Wojnarowicz’s estate posted three versions of the film online and offered to ship DVD’s to any group wanting to screen it in protest. The New Museum in NYC, SF Camerawork, the Queer Cultural Center, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Los Angeles’ CB1 Callery, REDCAT, LACE and Gallery KM all screened “A Fire in My Belly,” sometimes on a continuous loop.
On December 19, 2010, hundreds of artists, curators, and gay and free speech activists assembled in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for a rally. They demanded the return of Wojnarowicz’s video. Activists held banners reading “silence= death” and carried signs with Wojnarowicz’s iconic image of his mouth sewn shut on them. The group then marched up 5th avenue chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, censorship has got to go,” to the Smithsonian operated Cooper Hewitt Museum for a second protest. The day was organized by Art + (Art Positive), a New York City based art action group that fights censorship and homophobia.
The Smithsonian Board of Regents met January 31, 2011. The issue of Wojnarowicz’s video came up for the first time. In order to voice strong support of the work returning to the gallery and the firing of Clough, Art + organized another protest. Demonstrators met outside of the Smithsonian metro station at the mall entrance, then marched to The Castle, Smithsonian headquarters. Allies included Transformer, a Washington, DC, based non-profit visual arts organization, and the Museum of Censored Art.
Clough and the Smithsonian stood by their decision to censor “A Fire in My Belly.” However, the national debate the controversy started brought the censorship issue to the forefront of the art world.