In a December 19 march up Fifth Avenue from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 82nd Street to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum eight blocks north, hundreds of New Yorkers protested the removal of a video created by the late David Wojnarowicz from an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington. The Cooper-Hewitt is the Smithsonian’s design museum.
The Wojnarowicz video, “A Fire in My Belly,” used an image of ants crawling over a crucifix to convey the suffering of somebody dying of AIDS, which claimed his life in 1992. The video was part of the exhibition “Hide/ Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” an exhibition promoted as the first by a major art museum focused on LGBT themes.
“Hide/ Seek” opened to critical praise in late October, but in early December, the Wojnarowicz video was removed after complaints surfaced from members of Congress as well as the Catholic League, a right-wing group based in New York. The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue told the New York Times that the video constituted hate speech, while Eric Cantor, the number two Republican in the House of Representatives, called the display of Wojnarowicz’s video “an outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”
In response to immediate criticism of the decision to remove the video, the Portrait Gallery’s director, Martin 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.” Sullivan, speaking to the Times, praised the video for “vivid, colorful imagery and sometimes shocking metaphors” that represented “the reality of the suffering of the AIDS epidemic in Latin American culture,” but said he wished to put critics’ “misperceptions” to rest.
According to ARTPOSITIVE, a direct action group organized to protest the censorship of Wojnarowicz’s work, “scores of galleries and museums” around the world are exhibiting the video to counter “the Smithsonian’s capitulation to bigotry.” The group said that artist AA Bronson has demanded that his photograph “Felix, June 5, 1994,” depicting his lover at the time of his death from AIDS, be removed from “Hide/Seek.” The Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Calder Foundations pledged to boycott Smithsonian shows, the group said.