David Wojnarowicz Video Pulled from National Portrait Gallery Exhibition

The National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian in Washington removed a David Wojnarowicz video from one of its exhibitions and apologized for its contents after the video was criticized by the Catholic League and members of the House of Representatives for being offensive to Christians, the New York Times’s Dave Itzkoff reports.

Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly, 1987, was being shown as part of an exhibition called “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” The show, which opened on October 30, addresses issues of sexual and gender identity and bills itself as “the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture,” according to the museum’s website.

Wojnarowicz died of AIDS in 1992. Among the imagery that he uses to depict the suffering of an AIDS patient is a scene of ants crawling on a crucifix. In an interview with The Associated Press, Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League, an advocacy group, said A Fire in My Belly was “hate speech.”

David Wojnarowicz, A Fire in My Belly (Film in Progress), 1986–87.

“This is not the first time the Smithsonian has offended us,” said Donohue, who has criticized the institution for displaying works by other artists he considers anti-Catholic. “I’m going to cast my net much wider. Why should the government pay for this?”

The video was also criticized by several House Republicans. In interviews with Fox News, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia said it was an “outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season,” and Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia called it “in your face perversion paid for by tax dollars.”

Martin Sullivan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a telephone interview that the removal of Wojnarowicz’s work was the result of “a misperception that that video was about that artist intentionally wanting to do a sacrilegious piece on Christ or the crucifix or whatever.”

Sullivan added: “The piece, which was made in the late ’80s in Mexico, had much more to do with the reality of the suffering of the AIDS epidemic in Latin American culture, with that vivid, colorful imagery and sometimes shocking metaphors.”

“Unfortunately,” Sullivan said, “some of the accounts of this got out so virally and so vehemently that people were leaping to a conclusion that we were intentionally trying to provoke Christians or spoil the Christmas season.” Sullivan said he recognized that the removal of the video opened the museum up to criticism that it was censoring itself.

“I empathize fully with that point of view,” he said. “It’s really a very tough call to make. Obviously the Portrait Gallery is a part of the Smithsonian. It’s just one of many, many players in this new discussion or debate that’s going on in Congress about federal spending, the proper federal role in culture and the arts and so forth. We don’t think it’s in the interest, not only of the Smithsonian but of other federally supported cultural organizations, to pick fights.”

“That having been said,” Sullivan added, “we are certainly not going to shut down the entire exhibition or take other pieces out of it.”