Sightings recently reported on artist and gay-rights activist David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video “A Fire in My Belly,” which was pulled from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in response to pressure from conservative politicians and religious leaders. It had appeared in the NPG’s “Hide/Seek,” a show exploring “difference and desire in American portraiture,” and is now on display at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, prompting critical re-description.
Readers will recall that this video aroused the ire of now Speaker of the House John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, among others. Boehner sought to censor the exhibition, claiming that the NPG’s funding would face “tough scrutiny” if the gallery did not “correct” its “mistake,” while Cantor called for the video to be “pulled.” Catholic League president Bill Donohue, largely responsible for instigating the fray, claimed the video constituted “hate speech” against Christianity — in other words, blasphemy (from the Greek, “to speak evil of”).
In his comments for Sightings, Spencer Dew rightly admonishes readers who might be distracted by the controversy to attend to the actual content of the video. His own interpretation focuses on the image that sparked accusations of blasphemy: ants crawling on a crucifix. Situating Wojnarowicz in the lineage of symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, Dew sees the image as a “theological critique”: “over the icon of the whole system of inherent sin, necessary redemption, and otherworldly reward, Wojnarowicz imposes his personal iconography for the raw vitality of life, pre-conceptual, untainted by a religious worldview he finds to be flawed, oppressive and rejecting.”
This is a stirring reading — and to be sure, Wojnarowicz, an enraged antiauthoritarian, detested institutional forms of Christianity, particularly the Catholic Church. But remarks from the artist open up an alternative interpretation of the image and of the video on the whole, effectively turning the accusations of blasphemy back on those who have sought to censor his work.
Wojnarowicz saw the swarming ants as a “metaphor for society.” And testifying against the American Family Association in a 1985 trial revolving around his retrospective “Tongues of Flame,” Wojnarowicz spoke of the destitution, desperation, and addiction he witnessed in the streets of New York City, no doubt thinking of his own marginalized place as a homosexual, as well. He remarked of another controversial Jesus image in the exhibition, “I wanted to make a symbol that would show that [Jesus] would take on the suffering … that I saw on the streets.”
Without wanting to suggest that an artist’s interpretation of his or her work should be privileged, Wojnarowicz’s remarks commend a reading of the swarming ants as a metaphor for the degrading and oppressive religiopolitical conditions that have covered and corrupted a truth behind the religious icon. According to this reading, the ant image is not (or not only) a critique of a mechanistic and moralistic Christian ideology of sin, redemption, and reward, but a call for attention to an assault on empathy and the corruption engendered by indifference to suffering. The crucifix here is an assailed emblem of vulnerability, of woundedness — and thus compassion: suffering and feeling with others, a persistent theme in Wojnarowicz’s work.
This interpretation is supported by further consideration of context. Above all, the juxtaposition of two striking images largely overlooked by commentators intent on decrying or defending the ants reveals the continuing political relevance of the video. Wojnarowicz creates a startling visual echo in his video: a broken loaf of bread — an allusion to the Eucharist — being sewn back together with a thick red thread, and a pair of lips being sewn shut with the same needle and cord. The artist is perhaps best known for his self-portraits with sewn lips, which, as Dew points out, were a sign of protest against silence on the AIDS crisis. They put in visual form Wojnarowicz’s slogan “Silence = Death,” responding to what critic Lucy Lippard calls the “lethal censorship of AIDS information.”
How to interpret this pair of images? Both images trade on the ambivalence of wounding as simultaneously desirable and intolerable. The sewing is a gesture of wounding that seeks to close what should remain open: lips that speak and bread broken in compassionate community. But in Wojnarowicz’s hands, images of imposed silence, evoking the closure of compassion, become critical gestures. They simultaneously bring to visibility and speak out against conditions of inequality and oppression: When speech is silenced, images of silence give voice.
Censorship, a wounding that sews shut, is one expression of a religious and political worldview Wojnarowicz found oppressive and rejecting — a token of an ethically and politically asinine mentality, of a bigotry embodied by some who now operate at the supposed heart of democracy.
But “A Fire in My Belly” remains an open wound, still speaking nearly twenty years since the artist who created it died of AIDS-related illness. What it tells us is this: If Christianity affirms Jesus as an embodiment of love and compassion, then it is Donohue and those of like mind who, in decrying the video, speak hate. And if Boehner and his ilk hold the U.S. Constitution, including its First Amendment, to be sacred, then it is they who are the blasphemers.
- “A Fire in My Belly” is on display at the Smart Museum through February 6, 2011. The museum will host a panel discussion on the video on January 27. Go here for further details.
- The previous Sightings column treating “A Fire in My Belly” provided a link to a version of the video with music by Diamanda Galás. The version that appeared at the National Portrait Gallery, featuring sound from an ACT UP march, can be viewed here.
- Fran Lebowitz discusses the work and life of David Wojnarowicz in David Wojnarowicz: Brush Fires in the Social Landscape (Aperture: 1994). The book also contains further discussion of the suit Wojnarowicz filed against the American Family Association for misrepresentation of his work.
Jeremy Biles holds a PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School and is the author of Ecce Monstrum: Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form (Fordham University Press, 2007). He is book reviews editor for the Religious Studies Review, and teaches courses on religion, philosophy, art, and popular culture at institutions including DePaul University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. An insectophile, he also pursues cultural entomology.