David Wojnarowicz’s “Fire In My Belly” and the Curator as Designer
First, the controversial video piece itself:
Now, the story:
With the postmodern advent of artist-as-curator and curator-as-designer (for example, Fred Wilson), a curator or institutional space can no longer pass the buck for what is or is not displayed in a museum, how it is displayed, and if a work is removed. The way a work is presented–the design of a space exhibiting art–colors the viewer’s perception of the piece. Does it have its own room? What works are next to it? Is it tucked away in a corner where few will see it? Is it presented juxtaposed with a work that is technically or conceptually different? More than anything, however, completely removing a work from an exhibition speaks loudest of all. The designer/curator doing so is the equivalent of a designer/illustrator dumping ink all over a 2-page spread. The removed work is gone, and its absence affects everything else on the page/in the gallery, as well.
Such is the case with The Smithsonian Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek exhibit. The first exhibition to explore homosexual desire in art history, it is a historic show that, at first, received mostly positive attention. In one ABC news piece, “co-curator Jonathan Katz of the State University of New York at Buffalo said he tried for 15 years to mount a similar exhibit in New York City but found no takers.” Similarly, other news outlets focused on the fact that an exhibition like this is quite overdue, discussed the number of big-name artists in the show like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, or took an overall neutral tone. Until…
…a group of what the LA Times calls “anti-gay bullies” noticed “Fire In My Belly.” The LA Times also notes, “Museum publicist Bethany Bentley told the media that no complaints — none — were received from the day the show opened, on Oct. 30, until Nov. 29, when an online article appeared on the right-wing Cyber News Service.” Suddenly, anti-gay groups across the nation demanded the work be removed, ostensibly because 11 seconds of the video features anti-Christian content. One small detail–ants crawling over the crucified form of Jesus Christ–became the scapegoat for the real issue, the fact that a respected American institution has legitimized the work of gay and lesbian artists. Now “Fire In My Belly” has been removed from the show.
This one small detail–ants on Jesus–overshadowed the entire rest of the show so much that some felt it acceptable to condemn the entire Smithsonian without having actually been there. According to NPR, “[Catholic League President Bill] Donohue admits he has not seen the exhibition Hide/Seek.” Donohue has also called attention to the classist elements of the show, suggesting that the fabled institution spend its money sponsoring professional wrestling, something more enjoyable than art for those who do not belong to the moneyed urban elite he considers the Smithsonian’s main demographic.
This poses some questions of its own–while many argue that anti-gay groups would find something to complain about with this exhibition regardless of curatorial design, could the curator-as-designer preempt the ostensible problems people like Donohue have with the show? Had an artist from a working-class background like Warhol been acknowledged as such, his class considered as much a part of his identity as his sexuality in accompanying text, would it render such criticism invalid? Will the new task for curator/designers be an ideological game of tag, thinking of new ways to design a show that protect the both the work of curators and the work of artists from censorship?
(Note: I understand that it may not have been the decision of any individual curator or group of curators responsible for the removal of this piece. Since there is no one person identified as responsible for the removal, for the sake of argument will restrict this discussion to curatorial matters.)