The Upside of Censorship

The Upside of Censorship

Sometimes the censor is art’s best friend.


My mouth drops at this incredible meal Jean-Pierre has come up with and we eat humming and umming and ah yeah oui oui great slurp and a li’l wine to freshen the spirit and cheese and yogurt for dessert and after that we talk about bats and owls and get into bed…so fuckin’ cold without the heater working that the skin almost freezes to the sheets…he undresses quick and ouch ouch jumps beneath the sheets moaning at the freeze of them and I undress and…ah…ah…inch my way beneath the covers and we rub and warm each other up breathing hot breath on each other’s bodies to chase the chill away and soon that becomes frenzy and we’re getting on in the heat of delicious sexual contact the sheets go flying off it doesn’t matter anymore the heat has come up from the heart into the surface of flesh and eyes glowing we roll back and forth and finally there is sleep…long restful uninterrupted smooth warm exterior interior sleep where dreams chase the hedges and dogs wheel around the sky and not a river or snake or any sexual image but the strongest one of all and its rhythms of life itself ah yeah…
                  —David Wojnarowicz, diary entry, 1978

Somewhere in America there is a boy who picked up a newspaper at some point since last fall and read the name David Wojnarowicz for the first time. Somewhere there is another boy who was trolling the Internet, and another who caught Live at 5, and another who was walking along F Street in Washington and saw a construction trailer with a droopy banner saying Museum of Censored Art and thought, Cool. And all of these boys—in the dark about art because why wouldn’t they be? in the dark with their sexuality because it’s still scary, in the dark about the social machinery of seduction and death because the political culture is so adept at sleight of hand—are poised to discover wondrous and fiery things because Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center and Bill Donohue of the Catholic League and Congressmen John Boehner and Eric Cantor complained that Wojnarowicz’s work is too hot to handle.

Sometimes the censor is the best friend knowledge has. He is for sure one of the best friends art has. In the latest case, the censor has retrieved Wojnarowicz’s sensitive, sexy, fiercely rebellious legacy from the elite world that, since his death from AIDS in 1992, has hung him in hushed halls and pronounced, Yes, he did deserve to live, after all.

In October the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery opened a show called “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” It assembled 106 works by major artists from Romaine Brooks to Jasper Johns to Andy Warhol around the concept that sexual outlaws have responded to repression with “creative acts of resistance” by which they declared themselves and, in the process, helped to define American culture. A strong show, and the first queer-themed exhibit in a national museum, it nevertheless would have been as conspicuous as rain on a distant sea if it weren’t for a few dank straight men who hate gay people.

These men huffed and puffed and blubbered that Christmas was insulted by eleven seconds of a Wojnarowicz video and agreed that Donohue was right to call its use of a crucifix “hate speech.” A nice touch, that phrase, always a prelude to shutting someone up; liberals, take note: it will be used against you. Freaked, the Smithsonian’s top man, G. Wayne Clough, yanked the video from the show on November 30. From then on, protest has rung through the blogs, print and the streets of DC.

It is almost as if Wojnarowicz had reached out from the grave to orchestrate against his own domestication. As an artist, he wanted acknowledgment, but as a man alert to the ways that the system pulls the trapdoor on people, relegating most to shadows while handing out a few rewards, he was at an angle to an art world convicted by faith in a royal priesthood, an elect set apart.

In his diaries, collected by Amy Scholder in In the Shadow of the American Dream, he is a lonely kid observing nature, a young man experiencing life on the road, a free man in Paris studying the senses, falling in love, worrying over his future and scorning “this self-searching in the face of a world that kills people with bombs.” He was 8 in suburban New Jersey when his father started killing the family pets; 16 when he dropped out of school and narrowly survived the violence of life on the streets; 21 when it struck him that his homosexuality was “a wedge that was slowly separating me from a sick society”; 24 and in Normandy when he wrote the passage quoted at the start, so ripe with erotic innocence; 25 when he gained first public notice, for a series of portraits of other men behind a mask of Rimbaud; mid- to late 20s when he scavenged the midnight of Reagan’s America and became the unintentional chronicler of a sexual Atlantis on the Hudson River piers; 30 when AIDS had killed 7,699 Americans but Reagan had yet to mention it; 33 when he made A Fire in My Belly, the unfinished film that has offended Reagan’s heirs; 36 when he made his famous untitled self-portrait as a child set in the center of a nail-storm of words describing the cruelties that will befall this kid “in one or two years when he discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy”; 37 when he died. His loved ones held a demonstration.

* * *

I had never seen A Fire in My Belly until I stepped into the frigid construction trailer that Mike Blasenstein and Michael Dax Iacovone opened in front of the National Portrait Gallery on January 13, their free Museum of Censored Art. The two Mikes had never seen the video until it was censored. Blasenstein had never heard of Wojnarowicz. Nor had many of the young volunteers who sat for hours to keep the trailer open each day; nor many of the 6,476 people who came into this rough metal box to watch the film on a clunky TV powered by batteries.

Like the trailer, A Fire in My Belly is raw. Animals fight, humans fight, policemen preen, slums flash outside a car window and a machine’s wheels turn. Traffic veers around a legless beggar. A man hammers at the concrete bridge he’s perched upon. Everything violent flourishes. Everything beautiful is consumed: a martyr in flames, a sacrificial victim, a leopard pacing in its cage. St. Lucy holds her eyes in a dish, patron of the blind. Bread is not free; speech is not free. Only blood drips freely. Mummies stare out their skulls. A colony of ants goes about its business, crawling over money, a crucifix, a shrine to the dead. Jesus weeps. Wojnarowicz bleeds, mouth stitched closed. This is my body; this is my blood. Someone washes his hands, but you get the feeling there will never be enough water.

If someone hadn’t been offended, I’d have been offended for the artist. A visitor to the trailer told me the Smithsonian should have put a sign in the gallery saying the piece had been censored and then held a panel discussion about it. This is not a polite, go-to-panel work. It is an incitement, a hoarse shout into the moral wilderness: the world you tolerate is one of force and suffering, liberal until the handcuffs come out, or the executioner’s gurney, or the predator drone; liberal because you can step around the casualties of everyday horror on the way to work and believe They brought it on themselves, except the bodies keep piling up. Donohue and the others shouldn’t have been insulted because of a plastic Jesus; they should have been insulted as powerful men at the footstool of the thrones of blood.

Before the two Mikes had the idea for the trailer, they stood just outside the “Hide/Seek” exhibition with leaflets in hand and the video on an iPad hanging from Blasenstein’s neck. “Every time someone took a leaflet, security swarmed around,” Blasenstein told me. “That was maybe the most disappointing thing; everyone who took a leaflet gave it back.” After ten minutes security brought out the handcuffs and called the DC police, who made the two sign a document, since rescinded, acknowledging that they would be banned from any Smithsonian museum. They are not sure what to do next with their guerrilla museum concept, but Blasenstein, a website manager in daily life, says he is forever changed.

Jonathan David Katz, one of the curators of “Hide/Seek,” said he wanted A Fire in My Belly in the show because it offered the densest metaphor for life with AIDS under Reaganism. It offends some in the art world that he edited Wojnarowicz’s thirteen- and seven-minute cuts down to four, all, Katz says, the Portrait Gallery would allow. It offends some that he gave it a soundtrack, an audio recording of an ACT UP demonstration that Wojnarowicz had made and that includes his voice. The Museum of Modern Art, which previously had been indifferent to A Fire in My Belly, grandly demonstrated its defiance of censorship by buying the artist’s cuts, now installed in MoMA’s exquisite mausoleum for art in the age of AIDS, viewable (unless you have Friday evenings off) for the $20 price of admission. I wonder how long it would take the two Mikes to be hustled away if they stood in that temple with a loudspeaker quoting Wojnarowicz, “I don’t want to be polite and crawl into the media grave of ‘AIDS’ and disappear quietly.”

Beyond the rage, Wojnarowicz was posing a choice between love and barbarism, between “life…ah yeah” and a culture of killing. Sex, love, these were not incidentals of a private identity for him; AIDS was not some temporary trip-up in the forward sweep of human kindness.

As it happens, on the same day that his video was yanked, the Pentagon issued its review of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” President Obama was so tickled by one observation therein that he cited it when he signed the law repealing the policy. Speaking of our nation’s values, the president declared, “As one Special Operations warfighter said during the Pentagon’s review—this was one of my favorites—‘We have a gay guy in the unit. He’s big, he’s mean, he kills lots of bad guys. No one cared that he was gay.’ And I think that sums up perfectly the situation.”

If that is true, the league of lovers really is tottering at the cliff of defeat. The censors may be thanked for their bracing slap in the face.

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