A bicoastal set of unrelated incidents has stirred up a heated discussion in the art world and beyond that harks back to the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s, when right-wing politicians and pundits, like Jesse Helms and Al D’Amato and Pat Buchanan, along with religious leaders like Donald Wildmon and Pat Robertson, launched a concerted attack on the National Endowment for the Arts for supporting artists and venues engaged in “anti-Christian bigotry,” as Wildmon tagged Andres Serrano’s notorious photograph Piss Christ. They successfully campaigned to cancel a 1989 exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and passed legislation forbidding the NEA from funding artists and institutions that “promote, disseminate or produce obscene or indecent materials.”
Strangely, the central figure in the more high-profile of the current controversies is a repeat player—David Wojnarowicz, who won a lawsuit against Wildmon over the misrepresentation of his artwork in 1990. Wojnarowicz, an outspoken gay activist as well as a gifted visual artist and writer, died of AIDS-related illness in 1992. This past November 30, a condensed version of his film A Fire in My Belly—which contains an eleven-second sequence showing a crucifix crawling with ants—was removed from the exhibit “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in response to complaints from William Donohue of the Catholic League and Representative John Boehner, neither of whom had seen either the video or the exhibition.
“Hide/Seek” is a landmark exhibit in several ways: it’s the largest and most expensive show in the NPG’s history and the first major survey exploring gay identity to be mounted in a federally administered institution. Curators Jonathan Katz and David Ward took pains to create a scholarly and minimally provocative reassessment of the history of American modern art, with the hope of integrating the insights and revelations of previously suppressed gay and lesbian cultural history—a process that has been under way since the 1960s but suffered a distinctive chill in mainstream institutional support in the wake of the late ’80s commotion.
Apparently they didn’t take enough pains for the Christian right and newly empowered Republican House members, including incoming House Speaker Boehner and majority leader Eric Cantor, both of whom publicly threatened the Smithsonian’s future Congressional funding and autonomy if the exhibit wasn’t axed, citing Wojnarowicz’s video as “an outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season”—despite the fact that neither had seen the artwork in question, relying instead on intelligence provided by a right-wing blogger.
Quite apart from the central enigma of how an image of ants crawling on a crucifix translates so clearly and unequivocally into anti-Christian “hate speech” (as Donohue characterized it—I must have missed that class at art school), it’s difficult to fathom what could be deemed particularly offensive in Wojnarowicz’s poetic Super-8 jumble of surrealist tableaus and documentary footage from Mexico. Although containing disturbing material—cockfights and bullfights, sideshow mummies, crippled beggars and, with darkly ironic prescience, the artist sewing his own mouth shut—A Fire in My Belly is pretty tame by the standards of contemporary experimental cinema, and pales next to the torture-porn of the Saw franchise or The Passion of the Christ. The NPG admitted that it had, in fact, received no complaints from the viewing public.