Though it is quite rare, some acts of hatred and ignorance can be turned into enlightening, thought provoking exercises that increase awareness. This phenomenon occurred recently, in response to the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly from the Hide/Seek exhibition at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
Before the exhibition opened, I enthusiastically read about the first major retrospective of the most prominent and influential GLBTQ American artists. While I was busy looking up affordable flights to DC and checking out cheap hotels, I realized that some people probably weren’t nearly as excited about the show as I was, and that the show would inevitably cause unwarranted controversy.
Unable to take time off to make it to DC, my dreams of seeing the show in person slowly faded. When it was brought to my attention that the new speaker of the house, Mr. John Boehner, demanded that David Wojnarowicz’s video entitled A Fire in My Belly be removed from the Smithsonian’s exhibition because it was “hate speech,” I was infuriated. I couldn’t believe Boehner’s ignorance, hatred, and close-mindedness. I knew that Hide/Seek had a target placed on it by the conservative right from the beginning, but I did not think that blatant censorship and a disregard for the separation between church and state would be the result.
The four minute video, which was actually the extra footage not yet used in the unfinished version of A Fire in My Belly, can be seen on youtube here.
The controversy around this four minute clip started when conservative, Republican politicians threatened to cut museum funding if the film was not removed from the exhibition. They claimed that the parts of the film that show ants crawling across a crucifix were “hate speech” and that it was not appropriate, especially so close to the Christmas holiday.
First of all, these politicians are blatantly ignoring a separation between church and state. Every American is not Christian, and a public institution should not be denied funding for showing a film that criticizes or questions a particular religion. The work was also completely de-contextualized. In it’s context, a film created by a man who suffered through the AIDs crisis and lost many friends and his own life to the disease, is, in my opinion, allowed to have a crisis with Christianity. Most of the footage was also filmed in Mexico, a culture that is characterized by a zealous commitment to Christianity but incredibly different outlook and appreciation of life and death than that of the culture of the United States.
Censoring this film was an act of hatred and ignorance. Thankfully, many museums and cultural institutions around the United States and beyond decided to screen Wojnarowicz’s films in protest of Boehner’s unfair censorship. As a result, many more people became aware of the film and were able to watch the film in a museum setting where they could engage in productive dialogue with other viewers. For days after the removal of the film it was impossible to watch the news or surf the web without seeing headlines about the controversy. The acts of conservative politicians to try to censor Hide/Seek back fired, and many people went out of their way to see the censored film at other institutions as an act of defiance.
Kudos to the institutions who participated in the film screening and to the people who protested artistic censorship by watching the film.