Robin Cembalest, ARTnews magazine’s executive editor, has posted online today a detailed opinion piece on the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” controversy (to appear in the magazine’s February issue), adding her voice to those of us who have called for Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough to come out of hiding and seek a forum for public discussion of this contretemps. Robin also provides a useful history of present and past Culture Wars and convincingly argues that “arts professionals need to be proactive now if they want to forestall a new culture war.”
But the more I learn, the more convinced I become that while political interference in the arts must be steadfastly guarded against, the National Portrait Gallery’s version of “A Fire in My Belly”—a four-minute clip that was altered by the show’s curator but presented as the work David Wojnarovicz—is simply not worth going to the mat for.
As noted in the removed label that had accompanied the removed artwork (full text at the bottom of this post), the duration of the original 1985-87 video was 30 minutes, which was “edited down to 4.” The label doesn’t reveal that the final edit was performed by the show’s curator, who did it to make the video more suitable “for museological display,” as curator Jonathan Katz has publicly stated.
On his Facebook page, Katz has characterized the removal of the video as “appeasing tyranny.” While his rhetoric is consistently over-the-top, Katz does have a valid point: Even though the video is partly (as its conservative critics contend and as the video’s exhibition label had acknowledged) a condemnation of religion, that’s no excuse, in a free-speech society, for trying to suppress it.
The question, to my mind is whether it’s worth provoking Congressional budgetary backlash over a four-minute snippet of curatorially tainted goods, displayed in a federal institution. Even if approved by the artist’s estate, the video’s alteration ignored Wojnarovicz’s moral right to the integrity of his work—especially important posthumously, when he’s not around to defend it. (I have a query in to the National Portrait Gallery asking why it saw fit to display the altered, truncated version.)
But don’t just listen to me. Listen to comic book creator James Romberger, who gives extensive background and commentary about “A Fire in My Belly” on the “Hooded Utilitarian” blog [via]. Romberger had collaborated on a graphic novel, “Seven Miles a Second,” with Wojnarovicz, whose autobiography provided the novel’s storyline. In 1987, Romberger viewed the now controversial video in Wojnarovicz’s apartment, where they discussed it together. He claims to be “one of the few who saw David’s original film.”
Romberger is candidly blunt about Wojnarovicz’s attitude towards the Catholic Church (which he describes as adversarial “for good reasons”) and notes that “unfortunately, some of the response [by the video's defenders] to the Smithsonian’s subsequent removal of the film from ‘Hide/Seek’ has thus far also suppressed David’s intent regarding religion.”
Romberger is equally outspoken about the alterations made to the video:
What is being shown on YouTube and elsewhere online is not the original
film. Its intent has been changed because elements have been added that
are misplaced in time. The versions in circulation now both have imposed
soundtracks and their meaning is altered with added imagery that was
made years later….
Not everyone is as concerned as Marion with ensuring the integrity of
David’s art. Even before the film was removed from the show, David’s
voice had been recontextualized. [Bomberger described "Marion S." (full last name, "Scemama") as Wojnarovicz's "friend and collaborator," who had declined, "in the absence of her partner," to continue working on an unfinished Wojnarovicz film, for which the late artist had left detailed instructions.]…
The fragments of “A Fire in My Belly” from the Fales [Library] collection
[at New York University] were altered and an anachronistic soundtrack was added to a film that
was thought to be silent. The images of David with his lips sewn shut
are also misplaced in time. They are from Rosa von Praunheim‘s and Phil
Zwickler‘s 1989 film Silence = Death [my link, not his] and impose a focus on the
AIDS crisis on a work from a time just before David primarily dedicated
his work to his ordeal with AIDS.
Below is the complete text of the label that, along with the video, was removed from the National Portrait Gallery’s show:
“A Fire in My Belly”
“When I was told that I’d contracted this virus, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I’d contracted a diseased society as well.”
As the above line suggests, Wojnarowicz’s art continually moves out from the specific to the general, from self-portraiture into a broader indictment of social intolerance and discrimination. A Fire in My Belly, a compilation of footage largely shot in Mexico, weaves together numerous images of loss, pain, and death into a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic; it concludes in a picture of the world aflame.
Cutting rapidly between disjointed but not unconnected images, Wojnarowicz keeps returning to images of a loaf of bread being sewn back together-and a mouth sewn shut. A brief shot of a construction worker hammering away at the concrete upon which he stands underscores the political metaphors that power his poetic, yet furious, condemnation of the way greed, religion, and selfishness conspire to label certain people as outside the scope of our caring.
David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992)
Duration: 30 minutes (edited down to 4)
Courtesy Fales Library, New York University, New York City
CORRECTION: The second paragraph of the Romberger quote in the orginal version of this
article said (in the bracketed explanation that I had written) that
“Marion S.,” respecting the integrity of Wojnarovicz’s art, had declined to work on “A Fire in My Belly” after the artist’s death, even though he had left detailed instructions.
Romberger told me today
that the project Wojnarovicz and Marion S. had been working on was a different film (not “A Fire in My Belly”). The point about not posthumously tampering with an artist’s work still pertains.