Holding One’s Own: Artists and Others Solidarity to Current Directions in Censorship (updated)

Posted: December 19, 2010 in Uncategorized

(update I, II, and III)

Many who wonder about the curtailing of expression and thought in our current Western Democracies have been coming to focus on the current case of the Smithsonian National Portrait Galleries recent withdrawal of the video “Fire in My Belly” by David Wojnarowicz from the exhibition  “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,”.  (see background information here).

The work by Wojnarowicz, which had been criticized by the head of the Catholic League and a few Republican members of Congress who threatened the withholding of Grants to the Smithsonian unless the video was taken away from public access,  has seen a bevy of defenders come to its defense.

Along with the Tate Modern expressing interest in showing the piece (Tate Modern, Jan. 22.), artists and foundations which are associated with the show have strongly petitioned the Museum to recant its position and reinstall the piece.

AA Bronson, (Canadian artist , past work with the General Idea Group) who’s tragic work titled “Felix, June 5, 1994,” shows the corpse of Mr. Bronson’s partner (and co artist From General Idea) shortly after he died of AIDS, wrote the museum director to demand the removal of his works from the exhibition in solidarity with the message of Wojnarowicz’s work which was meant to deal with the issue of the devastation of AIDS. The National Gallery has said it will not return the large scale photographic work in order to keep the Exhibition “intact”.

General Idea; Playing Doctor, 1993 (Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson)


Michael Katakis, an American Artist not in the Exhibition proper, has contacted the Director of the Smithsonian Museum to request the return of a photographic piece donated by him to the museum in the 1980’s.   The Piece in question is a photographic portrait of Maya Lin (an American artist working in Sculpture and LandArt, and the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.)

The Warhol Foundation has threatened to remove funding from the Smithsonian if the withdrawn ”Fire in MY Belly” is not reinstated to the Exhibition ”Hide/Seek”.  This threat is not without significance as the Warhol foundation is the second major contributor for the exhibition as well as having given approximately 400,000 dollars in donations within the last 4 years.   The Foundation director called the withdrawal of the piece “blatant censorship” defined by bigots who are operating in the context of only “ignorance, hatred and fear”.  One of the offending operations which demanded censorship of the piece, The Catholic league,  defined the piece as a form of “hate speech”. This stance which has been echoed by a number and variety of  conservative organizations who have been able to engage  a number of republican senators to bring force to this debate by additionally threatening the Smithsonian with the withholding of more general funds if the piece was not removed from the show

As with the Andy Warhol Foundation, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation is voicing a determined request to reinsert the Wojnarowicz video back into the “Hide/Seek” exhibition or it  has promised  it will revoke all  future financing for the Smithsonian.   The Mapplethorpe Foundation had contributed a grant of $10,000 for the “Hide/Seek,” exhibition.

This is more than a sore point for this Foundation as Mapplethorpe’s work had been the focus of strong censorship claims in the past and which culminated in a cancellation of a Retrospective of his Work which was to take place at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington (1989, which was to take place shortly after his death from AIDS related complications).   The Retrospective Exhibition was withdrawn because a number of the works were described as either of a homoerotic or sadomasochistic nature.  The fear which compelled the Gallery to withdraw the exhibition was that of a continuation of inciting Conservatives, and Jesse Helms specifically, against art funding (NEA), as it had done in the “Piss Christ” case (and which came to decimate funding for the visual arts community, generally in the United States).


Robert Mapplethorpe Cock (1985)

To highlight how this was not a unfounded concern, when the exhibition was brought to Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center, in its stead, the institution and its leader were immediately charge with the crime of public obscenity.

The Calder Foundation though it had come to an agreement with the National Portrait Gallery in regard to an upcoming exhibition of Calder’s portraits, has also voiced a protest of withdrawal of the Wojnarowicz video and says it will demand back a promised work until the video is reinstated to the exhibition.   The Piece which may be withheld is a wire portrait of the vital and charismatic superstar Josephine Baker, titled “Aztec Josephine Baker”, which is currently on loan to the National Portrait Gallery.


Alexander Calder, Aztec Josephine Baker (1929)

In the communication between the Director of the Calder Foundation and the Director of  the National Portrait Gallery the Smithsonian is taken to task for removing the work under pressure from a small and “radical” element in the society.  To Quote:  “As it is clear that the Smithsonian wishes to appease a fringe audience, it seems appropriate that we remove from the exhibition Aztec Josephine Baker which is surely a most provocative work depicting a nude, African-American woman.”

Lastly, today will be a demonstration for the reinstatement of the Video, and a loud call to have an open and tolerant environment for the varied contemplation and subtleties of art and its experience.  The Demonstration information is here and goes under the apropos name, Art Positive.  The march will begin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and end at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.  We await word on this!

Update I,

As of January 1st, 2011, the National Portrait Gallery online is hosting “A Fire in My Belly” on their newly redesigned website.   Still not returned to the exhibition but you can Click here to watch it on their site?!!.

And for all information about the still unfolding support for return of the piece (and anti-Censorship circling around this piece): The Hide/Seek organization is tracking showings of “ Fire in My Stomach” since its withdrawal from the show at the National portrait gallery and chronicling the ongoing debate surrounding the removal.  They also are asking others to screen the piece.  Their mission as stated is: HIDESEEK.ORG is a central, comprehensive list of all screenings of A Fire in My Belly and related events and discussions. To host a screening and discussion or to have yours listed, please contact them here.

HIDESEEK.ORG is also becoming a permanent archive of this moment by chronicling all of the organized events surrounding this event and by downloading, organizing, and making available all of the media’s responses to “Hide/Seek” and the removal of Wojnarowicz’s film.

Update II:

Artpositive’s march, on December 20th,  had an attendance of 400-500  which ended at the Cooper-Hewitt to demand the reinstatement of “A Fire in My Belly”. They have posted a survey of various media articles, with links, about the march and the controversy.

Update III:

A January 4th protest/action about the destruction of the Blu Mural took place in the evening with approximately 300 participants in the empty parking lot where the mural had once resided.  Check out the information here.

  1. […] Recently the Smithsonian was forced to remove a work of art from its exhibition on the Glbt themes.  The show, considered the first major museum exhibition on this subject in the US, was pressured to remove the work of art due to its offensive nature in regard to religion according to the US Senators who pressured the National Portrait Gallery to pull out the work from the exhibition.  The Senators, House Speaker-designate John Boehner and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have also have called for the closing of the entire exhibition, stating: […]

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