DECEMBER 18, 2010 5:46PM

Convenient Misinterpretations: The Saga of Wojnarowicz

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Film still: David Wojnarowicz, A Fire In My Belly, 1986-87/ 2010. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, NY.

What could have ended a 21 year blacklisting of LGBTQ artists in a major museum context has become target for a fundamentalist attack on basic civil rights and freedom of expression. On December 1st, 2010, G. Wayne Clough, the Smithsonian Secretary, ordered Wojnarowicz's Fire In My Belly video to be removed from the Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture show at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. Curators of the show weren't consulted, nor was the Director of the National Portrait Gallery, Martin Sullivan. How did this happen? Soon after Penny Starr's review was published on the conservative news site, Catholic League President Bill Donohue called the video  “hate speech" and criticized the usage of a crucified Jesus covered in ants as "anti-Christian", among other things. Despite the name, the Catholic League is not affiliated with the Catholic Church. Much like the Corcoran arts scandal twenty years ago, under pressure and threats (of losing future funding) by Congressional Representative John Boehner and Eric Cantor, the Smithsonian's Secretary pulled the video from the exhibition. This act of censorship officially altered a show about LGBTQ visibility, placing it at the center of a surrealist Culture War, part II.

So, how do 11 seconds of a silent film become "hate speech", resulting in blatant censorship; institutionalized homophobia and a resurgent disdain for body politic work that has defined American Art in the last four decades? 

On December 16, 2010, the International Center of Photography held a screening of three edits of Fire In My Belly and a panel discussion with Hide/Seek co-curator Jonathan D. Katz; ICP curator Kristen Lubben; artist and educator Nayland Blake; publisher and friend of DW Amy Scholder; artist Joy Episalla and Marvin Taylor, Director of NYU's Fales Library. 


ICP Panel
ICP Video Screening and Conversation panelists, left to right: Joy Episalla, Jonathan D. Katz, Amy Scholder, Marvin Taylor, Nayland Blake. Not pictured: Kristen Lubben. Projected behind the panelists: Wojnarowicz's notes for Fire In My Belly. Photo by Patricia S.


While attending this panel, I realized the inherent limitations of unmediated content in contemporary media. It's like this: Donohue called this work "hate speech" based on his viewing of Fire In My Belly on YouTube. In all likelihood, he did not visit the exhibition and examine the context of this work — a video displayed in a kiosk, requiring the pushing of a button to be played. That's right: the 4 minute edit of this video was not looping prominently in the exhibition, it was actually quite discreet. A significant act of censorship has snowballed because of one video on YouTube: a user-generated, super low-quality illegitimate copy of Fire In My Belly edited not by Wojnarowicz nor his estate; an illegal copy  including an unauthorized soundtrack by Diamanda Galas. The origin of the video is unknown or unclear. At the time of Penny Starr's review, there wasn't an official video of Fire In My Belly on YouTube.

The user-generated video collage featured Diamanda Galas' This is the Law of the Plague, from Galas' controversial Plague Mass, a requiem for those dead and dying of AIDS, performed live at Saint John the Divine cathedral in New York City in 1991. Plague Mass was also attacked by the Catholic Church in the 1990s, because Galas used biblical texts to criticize and condemn the Roman Catholic Church's indifference to AIDS. So, what Donohue termed "hate speech" is actually Gala's text on Catholic indifference paired with Biblical passages showing the hypocritical context of such indifference. Galas had her own battle with censorship over this work, and won. Despite what some articles are reporting, Galas and Wojnarowicz never met, never collaborated. A friend of Wojnarowicz, Amy Scholder, confirms the two artists spoke a few times by telephone and admired each other's work, but that's it. Galas' music was never a part of any edit of Fire In My Belly by Wojnarowicz, a fact easily proved by Wojnarowicz's extensive notes and sketches for the work. Fire In My Belly is an unfinished work. A work in progress, edited for display.

View David Wojnarowicz "A Fire in My Belly" as edited for the Smithsonian, National Portrait Gallery Edit courtesy of ppow_gallery.

Did you know the average time a viewer will spend with a moving picture is 37 seconds?  To not push impatient audiences away, Fire In My Belly was edited. Every image in the 7 minute work in progress by Wojnarowicz was included in the 4 minute edit at Hide/Seek. Every image was included in sequence but truncated (cycles of repetition were omitted) and audio was added. Jonathan D. Katz highlighted the difficulty of showing a short silent film in contemporary museum settings. "To museum directors, moving images without sound look like broken kiosks." In order to display this work with audio, Jonathan D. Katz and co-curator David C. Ward obtained an audio recording from the Wojnarowicz papers at NYU's Fales Library and Special Collections. The audio piece was from an ACT-UP demonstration in June of 1989.

From a curatorial perspective, the audio recording was in alignment with the intent of Wojnarowicz as artist, activist and writer. By including this piece in Hide/Seek, the co-curators presented the complexities of living and dying during a time in art history when conservatism and censorship threatened creative expression; a time in history when homophobia and disregard for AIDS patients was a rampant display of political power. Removing this work from the show presents layers of irony, but real disappointment begins with the history-altering implications of censuring this piece. Not only does the removal of Fire In My Belly from Hide/Seek disrupt a proper narrative of the personal and social work and experience of LGBTQ artists in America, it is a censorship of American Art history in general, and an alarming step back for the progress of civil rights.

Ironically enough, for a show about visibility of queerness in American Art, Penny Starr's review has guaranteed that this piece be viewed and discussed far more than if it had remained in the show, waiting for someone to press play on a kiosk. To denounce an unfinished work as "Hate Speech" (an assumption based on a user-generated, unauthorized collage on YouTube) raises questions about posthumous showings of works of art in progress. Marvin Taylor, Director of NYU's Fales Library pointed out "Unfinished paintings are shown all the time, is it different when working with media?" What about the finished paintings by queer artists, on museum walls right now? Although publicly displayed, the queerness of their authors remains unknown to the general public. Will institutions lacking autonomy, under this political tone, find motivation to reveal the truthful histories of their art collections?

 "This isn't about aesthetics, it's about history. This event highlights the importance of independent institutions. Without them, the fabric of history is shredded." — Nayland Blake

This recent act of censorship raises further questions of how art can be properly funded in independent, non-disruptive, non-political ways. While a congressional investigation was enough to force the video's removal from the NPG, both the Warhol Foundation and the Mapplethorpe Foundation have vowed to cease funding the Smithsonian unless the video is reinstated. In protest of censure, New York Artist AA Bronson has requested that his well-known Felix, June 5, 1994 painting be removed from the show. Nayland Blake noted the importance and role of "institutions as custodians and caretakers of history, not the vendors of the most palatable version." While on the topic of the palatable, symbols of Christian mysticism are not new in Wojnarowicz's work, a piece of art far less violent than still-image advertisements for popular video games and horror films released in the last decade (think Dexter). 

But in all truth, the controversy surrounding Fire In My Belly is not about religion. If it were about religion, other works in the show would have been the target of controversy. Because the conservative faction can no longer rely on blatant homophobic tactics, religion is being used to attack a prominent gay artist, during World Aids Week. In light of phone calls from, specifically about Wojnarowicz's video,  prior to Donohue's outrage, some of the panelists believe that this was a well-choreographed and extremely controlled political campaign.


Film still: David Wojnarowicz, A Fire In My Belly, 1986-87/ 2010. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York.
Film still: David Wojnarowicz, A Fire In My Belly, 1986-87/ 2010. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, NY.


Fire In My Belly remains an intensely personal meditation on the tragedies of living and suffering and dying from AIDS during the Reagan years. To me, this piece anticipates the corporate profiteering that has plagued AIDS research itself — a sort of plague within a plague. Just as art institutions need to independently manage their cultural agendas, medical institutions also need to divorce themselves from conservative institutions that dictate how medical research is funded. Morality has no place in medical and/or scientific advancement. As coins are thrown down at the viewer, or into a sick hand in Wojnarowicz's video, I am compelled to make that connection, based on other juxtapositions in the film.


Film still: David Wojnarowicz, A Fire In My Belly, 1986-87/ 2010. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, NY.


When Wojnarowicz takes a red string (blood) to unite two halves of one loaf of bread (the body of Christ), he juxtaposes images of his mouth sewn shut. This illustrates how silence can be equated with a separation of the divine body (humanity), and thus: the unsustainability of separateness in society. To censor is to divide. To separate is to perish. These are the key messages in a video being pawned in an act of political separatism from a fringe fundamentalist sect. We live in a fragmented political time, which consents the public display and discussion of controversial works only if they are held in contempt and regarded with disdain. As the arts community organizes protests and plans screenings of Fire In My Belly, artist Joy Episalla highlighted the importance of "not being distracted by bigotry, homophobia or ignorance."

So, what have I learned from Culture Wars II? That Art is fragile, far more so than the artists who create it. Defending its public necessity and purpose requires a constant guidance of context, and the instillment of human dignity into a greater social body: a body politic constantly lacerated by myopic acts of political polarization.


Stop the Censorship!
Protest in New York City – Sunday, December 19th, 1:00 PM

Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture will continue on view until February 13, 2011 at National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F Streets, NW, D.C., 20001.

Visit for a listing of national screenings of
Fire In My Belly, or keep up with developing news on the Facebook group.

For comic, but contextual relief (pun intended!), read Jerry Saltz’s Open Letter to the Republicans of the 111th Congress.


Portions of this piece were published as an Arts feature by Velvet Park Media on December 18, 2010: David Wojnarowicz: Convenient Misinterpretations.

© 2010 Patricia Silva


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Stop the Advance of the 451s
It is nice to see clarification on the Wojnarowicz/Galas issue as there have been countless reports with conflicting information. However as I have followed this story, Diamanda Galas has made several public statements stating that she was indeed co-collaborater of the film and lists the film on her website as having been made by both herself and Wojnarowicz. See article.
Also, Galas has stated in several press releases that she was the sole inspiration for the film when Wojnarowicz himself wrote that the inspiration for the film was his lover who died of Aids. There seems to be alot of confusion on this issue. Are there plans from Wojnarowicz's estate to further clarify?
@ craigstar1952 : Hi there! I read the Diamanda Galas website while writing my piece, and yes, it is confusing! But as she says, it's a presumption. Amy Scholder, who co-authored at least two books with David W. and was a close friend, as well as Marvin Taylor, Director of NYU's Fales Library where the Wojnarowicz papers are stored—they didn't see evidence of Galas in Wojnarowicz's notes and plans for the work. However, it was a work in progress, left in "an indeterminate state", yet there was never an audio component.

What is clear from the archives is that Wojnarowicz did not add or annotate (and he kept copious notes!) Galas' composition for Fire In My Belly. But who's to say what/who inspired it? They were both deeply affected by AIDS, there's definitely a common theme. But it throws another unnecessary spin on act of censorship. I myself don't understand why she uses the word "collaboration", after "presuming" that his work was based on her music.

And I love Diamanda Galas!
Nonsense. If it were any other religion it would never have happened in the first place or been pulled for "insensitivity." A phrase I've never heard the left apply to Christianity. Not Piss Christ or Smearing Faeces on an image of the Virgin Mary. Imagine something claiming to be art that dipped the star of David in unrine? All of the above are hate crimes. Crimes created by the left to apply only to the right. Crimes meant to offend people. With the answer no doubt, from the GLTBS or whatever the accronym, because they "deserve it." But who's they? The 75 0r 80% of Americans who are Christian? Catholics? The Methodist Church? My relatives? I'm an agnostic but I know what fighting words are. And I recognize someone trying to piss people off or be controversial because they get a laugh out of it. At some point you have to acknowledge your own hypocracy. People demand respect who don't show it. I think of all religions as silly, but defacing their symbols is obnoxious. This artist might as well have burned a Quran. Letting ants crawl across Jesus is just as offensive to many across the world. Try explaining that free speech to a hispanic and see what their answer is.
@ Snoreville Redencocker:

"All of the above are hate crimes. Crimes created by the left to apply only to the right. Crimes meant to offend people."
So do you think the walls of the Sistine Chapel are equally "hate crimes"? The body of christ as a symbol of human suffering goes back a long way, Wojnarowicz's piece continues in a long tradition of using Catholic mysticism to reveal a contemporary condition, as did Michelangelo.

"And I recognize someone trying to piss people off or be controversial because they get a laugh out of it."
Those who suffer through social entrapment and disdan have more obstacles to overcome than "getting a laugh".

"I think of all religions as silly, but defacing their symbols is obnoxious."
The KKK's cross burning is far more...icendiary than this work.

"This artist might as well have burned a Quran. "
Has been done before, but not exactly part of Wojnarowicz's complex language of Christian symbols: snakes, crucifix, suffering, etc.

"Letting ants crawl across Jesus is just as offensive to many across the world."
As is cross burning, but that is legal.

"Try explaining that free speech to a hispanic and see what their answer is."
Not sure what you mean. Understandings of free speech aren't dependent on ethnicity.
Thanks for the update (just getting to these back posts now). Angering. What year is it again?