Last week, Smithsonian Institution officials in Washington removed David Wojnarowicz’s “Fire in My Belly” from “Hide/Seek”, an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The move was made in response to pressure from Republicans and the Catholic League, a right-wing group with a long anti-gay record. House Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) then called for the closing of the exhibition, citing the Wojnarowicz image – of a Jesus statue with ants crawling on it – along with other works with sexual themes as an “outrageous use of taxpayer money“.
Well, it’s not. Yesterday, Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes ran the most compelling interviews I’ve read on the subject, talking to Dan Cameron, Executive Director of Prospect New Orleans and former curator at The New Museum. In 1999 Cameron organized a David Wojnarowicz retrospective, titled “Fever.” Here, he talks about the driving ideology behind the work:
What was Wojnarowicz's reaction when these types of things happened to him?
Cameron: I think that David was pretty agonized a lot of the time, to be honest with you. He just didn't understand why someone who wants to actualize their life, their consciousness, in the broadest and richest possible way, why they'd become targets for people who want to shut that down. There was an essential confusion with him, he'd ask it over and over again: What is the source of homophobia in our society, and why do we not look at homophobia as a disease the same way we understand racism and sexism are bad and negative, and that they harm and even kill people? We've never had that national conversation, and David insisted that it be in the forefront of discussion of his work.
When the forces of religious-driven bigotry rose up, when he became the victim, he really suffered. It was really horrible for him to live with this reality. He was surrounded by people at the time who said, 'It's a bitter cup, but you're going to have to take it.' In that sense, this idea that people are saying that David's work is hate speech against Christians during the Christian season”¦ it's fascinating how passionately [the religious right has] used anti-bigotry and anti-hate language and that they have turned the same language and weapons to beat us up with.
I even heard Rep. Cantor go off on the class dimensions, saying it's only elitist East Coast liberals who believe this stuff is art.! To think of David, who was a Polish-American from a working-class background, and to hear these accusations of elitism, it's frightening. [Image: Wojnarowicz, Fire, 1987. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.]
To read the full interview click here.