“Ants in my pants, fire in my belly,” chanted critic Jerry Saltz, with an estimated 500 artists, curators, activists, and gay and lesbian supporters on Sunday afternoon. The collective chant voiced response to the removal of a truncated version of the late artist David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video, A Fire in My Belly, from the exhibition “Hide/Seek” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Saltz, his partner Roberta Smith, the New Museum’s Lisa Phillips and former general counsel of the Metropolitan Museum Ashton Hawkins gathered among others on a brisk afternoon, by the steps of the Metropolitan Museum at 1:00 PM, holding signs that read, “Smithsonian stop the censorship,” “Free speech bitch,” “Stop homophobia” and “Silence = Death.”
PHOTOS BY YASHA WALLIN
In late November, the conservative Catholic League, led by Bill Donahue, joined forces with Republican representatives including Reps. John Boehner and Eric Cantor in demanding that the Smithsonian—the Portrait Gallery’s parent company—remove the video from the privately funded exhibition.
Curated by David Ward and Jonathan Katz the survey explores themes of sexual and gender identity in American portraiture. The curators have both decried the museum’s “stupid” decision while praising it for mounting a show that no other institution had touched in the first place. A Fire in My Belly is a condensed four-minute segment, where for seconds, ants are seen crawling over a crucifix. As Saltz summed up in the comments of his weekly New York blog, “It’s four seconds in this long boring videotape for God’s sake. We don’t threaten the Smithsonian for something like that. Do we?”
The charges of blasphemy are not new, but are limiting, in the context of Wojnarowicz’s often-polemical practice. Before his death from AIDS in 1992, he explained the use of ants in another work: “I used the ants as a metaphor for society because the social structure of the ant world is parallel to ours.”
Sunday’s protest was a culmination of three weeks of responses from various individuals and groups. Organized by an ad hoc group calling themselves Art Positive, and paying homage to a group founded as an offshoot of Act Up over 20 years ago, the protest was held in New York because it’s, “where the art world is based” coordinator and longtime activist Bill Dobbs explained.
“Put it back, put it back!” demanded the crowd as it marched from the steps of the Met nine blocks up Museum Mile to the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, also under the Smithsonian umbrella. There, police blocked the entryway, as the mass of people formed along the streets cheering, handing out literature and speaking out against the first major museum censorship case in nearly a decade.
“All of this is a flashback to the Culture Wars,” Dobbs declared, referring to the stricter social conservatism of the 1980s, when Wojnarowicz’s work was first cause for debate. Dobbs then cited the group’s bottom-line: “Stop the censorship and put the video back now.”
Before the protest, Dobbs explained his interpretation of the timeliness and significance of the exhibition, which proposes to interrogate the sexual strands, particularly queer, endemic to contemporary imagery: “It shouldn’t be forgotten why the show is so groundbreaking—there has been a lot of reluctance, not just those 21 years, a lot of reluctance historically to reckon with this kind of culture and artistic expression.”
The protest indeed put a priority on on expression. Reynolds, a Brooklyn Museum employee and performance artist described the controversy to passing tourists from the Netherlands, blaming it on “crazy Republicans” adding that she realized censorship like this would never happen in their country. Michelle Yun, a student at SVA, showed up with a bloody face and clothes that referenced a sequence from the video in question. “I’m just as angry as anyone here. If I were censored this way I would want people to come out. We’re all just looking out for each other.” She was glad so many people showed up because “artists are flaky.”
TM Davy, a painter, was more introspective, “I think there is an opportunity here for the art community to come together to explain art’s role in the cultural discourse, and I think that [this] protest could be the start of it. As good as the ‘hey hey, ho ho, censorship has got to go!’ feels—and it does feel good—I am sad to see so few critics and curators, and far too few artists who are not also queer, also in the line. This isn’t simply a gay issue at all. Ideally, this idea will spread, and the next threat to these protections will be met with a picket line of millions, and not simply hundreds.”
According to a post he wrote on the Catholic League’s website, Bill Donahue was watching the Giants game. Kickoff, too, was scheduled at 1 PM.