National Portrait Gallery Buried in Admonishments


James T. Bartlett has resigned as National Portrait Gallery commissioner, in protest of the Smithsonian’s  removal of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly from the “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” exhibition.

Since its decision to withdraw the Wojnarowicz piece in deference to complaints from William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, who dubbed it “hate speech” and to pressure from certain members of congress, the Smithsonian has been bombarded with criticism from other members of congress, supporters of free speech and the arts, friends and supporters of the artist, the Andy Warhol Foundation, and many of it’s own members, including Bartlett.

Created by the artist in response to a diagnosis of AIDS, and in a signature religion-probing gothic style, the video was removed from the (now ironically named) Hide/Seek, an exhibition of gay portraiture, at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery on November 30th.

The yanking of Fire in My Belly followed threats from Republican leader, Representative John Boehner of Ohio and Representative Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, who threatened the Smithsonian by claiming that the venerable institution was misusing taxpayer funds and they could look forward to losing funding in future.

Though the exhibit was privately funded, the Smithsonian does receive some public funding. But National Portrait Gallery officials have stated that their quick response was prompted by a fear that a swift news cycle was quickly burying the exhibit in distractions and that they were forced to stay ahead of it.

Initial reports of the work’s withdrawal brought on immediate protest and have resulted in a veritable avalanche of bad press.

On Wednesday, December 1st, upon hearing of the Smithsonian’s cave-in, Victoria Reis, co-founder, Executive & Artistic Director of the nearby Transformer gallery, ordered an immediate, 48 hour screening of a 4 minute clip of the work (similar to what was included in Hide/Seek). This version of Fire in My Belly was shown in the storefront window facing outward to the public.

Protests spread out from the small non-profit gallery on December 2nd as a march proceeded from Transformer, at 14th and P streets NW to the National Portrait Gallery to picket in front of it.

By December 3rd Transformer obtained from the Wojnarowicz Estate (represented by PPOW gallery) & the Fales Library, an original 13 minute version of the “film in progress” plus 7 minutes of excerpts, and began to show those inside the gallery. But that screening, ending on the 4th, proved to be a spur to further protest.

Frustrated that the screening was to end that Saturday, two men began showing an iPad video of the the work at the NPG, inside the entrance to the Hide/Seek exhibit. They were detained and banned from the Smithsonian for life.

In a letter co-written by Reis and Board President,  James Alefantis, repudiated the NPG’s failure to uphold its own claims that  “it is committed to the struggle for justice so that people and groups can claim their full inheritance in the American promise of equality inclusion and social dignity.”

The letter goes on to quote Rep. James P. Moran, chairman of the subcommittee that provides funding for the country’s major art institutions who, in response to the Wojnarowitcz controversy said, “The whole point is that we should not be censoring we should be discussing.”

In a statement reacting to the Smithsonian’s decision, P.P.O.W Gallery and The Estate of David Wojnarowicz said, “In 1990 the artist won a historic Supreme Court case, David Wojnarowicz v. American Family Association. The courts sided with Wojnarowicz after he filed suit against Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association, who copied, distorted and disseminated the artist’s images in a pamphlet to speak out against the NEA’s funding of exhibits that included art works of Wojnarowicz and other artists. We are deeply troubled that the remarks, which led to the removal of David’s work from Hide/Seek, so closely resemble those of the past. Wojnarowicz’s fight for freedom of artistic expression, once supported by the highest court, is now challenged again. In his absence, we know that his community, his supporters, and the many who believe in his work will carry his convictions forward.”

Meanwhile, silent protest marches continue to plague the Smithsonian with picketers carrying the iconic photo of Wojnarowicz with his mouth sewn shut. Some protesters have even projected the censored video onto the side of the building, apparently unhindered by police.

Even Stephen Colbert has joined in the fray, saying of Eric Cantor’s threats, “This defunding threat isn’t some cheap exercise in mindless censorship. It’s an anti-paradigmatic revolutionary work of conceptual art banning. Cantor’s art is about the art that isn’t there, making the inaccessible literally inaccessible.”

This evening, in an unprecedented admonition to any of it’s previous benefactors, The Andy Warhol Foundation threatened to cease funding to ALL Smithsonian Institution exhibitions if they will not reinstate the Wojnarowicz piece.

Transformer plans to display a sign in its window until the work is reinstated. Commemorating the Smithsonian’s shame, the sign reads:
A Fire in My Belly
Video by David Wojnarowicz (1954 – 1992)
Created in 1987, Censored by the Smithsonian Institution 2010


Related Stories:

National Portrait Gallery: Hide/ Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture

Post.Thing.Net: David Wojnarowicz’s Fire In My Belly

The Washington Post: The God Vote: ‘Sacrilege’ at the National Portrait Gallery

The Washington Post: Fire Man, By Philip Kennicott

The Huffington Post:Warhol Foundation Pushes Back, By Jim Hedges

3 thoughts on “National Portrait Gallery Buried in Admonishments

  1. Welcome to round two of the culture wars. The last time, the odious Sen. Jesse Helms attempted to gut the NEA as a cynical ploy to stoke the fervor of the religious right.

    This time, Helms’s more polished, though no less reprehensible successor is Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA). Cantor is trying once again to stir up populist ire against a cultural elite, to distract from his sordid maneuvers to prop up the economic elite with tax cuts that are worth many thousands of billions of dollars more than the funding for art works at the National Portrait Gallery.

    This is a brilliant article and it sharply puts the spotlight on these legislative hypocrites and modern day Savonarolas.

    Please share this information with anyone you can. Encourage them to adopt the tactics of the right and fight this censorship directly.

    I urge you to flood Rep. Cantor’s office, email and telephone lines with denunciations. Do not for a second let him think that he has “the people” on his side. Tell him you see right through his deception:

    There’s an email form here:

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