Those Who Attack Controversial Work Of Art Fail To Understand Its Meaning
Even though the Smithsonian recently removed an offensive four-minute video, the battle over its contents rages on. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League and several members of Congress are attacking the late artist David Wojnarowicz (pronounced voy-nah-ROH-vitch) because of the image on a video of ants swarming over a crucifix. In 1989, American Family Association founder Donald Wildmon mailed examples of Wojnarowicz’s work to every member of Congress, religious leaders and the media, decrying the images as pornographic or blasphemous. The artist sued Wildmon for misrepresenting his work and won the case. “A Fire in My Belly,” the work currently in question, also presents disturbing images.
Wojnarowicz made “A Fire in My Belly,” dated 1986-87, at a turning point. In 1987 his longtime mentor and lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, died of AIDS, and Wojnarowicz himself learned that he was H.I.V.-positive. Although his career was by then well established, he was backing off from involvement in the art world and on his way to becoming immersed in AIDS politics.
Wojnarowicz, who had a religious education, used his art to show how gays were demonized,even as AIDS was claiming young men.
That “A Fire in My Belly” is about spirituality, and about AIDS, is beyond doubt. To those caught up in the crisis, the worst years of the epidemic were like an extended Day of the Dead, a time of skulls and candles, corruption with promise of resurrection. Wojnarowicz was profoundly angry at a government that barely acknowledged the epidemic and at political forces that he believed used AIDS, and the art created in response, to demonize homosexuals.
He felt with reason, mortally embattled, and the video is filled with symbols of vulnerability under attack: beggars, slaughtered animals, displaced bodies and the crucified Jesus. In Wojnarowicz’s nature symbolism — and this is confirmed in other works — ants were symbols of a human life mechanically driven by its own needs, heedless of anything else. Here they blindly swarm over an emblem of suffering and self-sacrifice.
During his court case, Wojnarowicz explained the imagery Wildmon found so objectionable, which also helps us understand the tought behind “A Fire in my Belly.”
“I wanted to make a symbol that would show that he would take on the suffering of the vast amounts of addiction that I saw on the streets,” Wojnarowicz testified. “And I did this because I saw very little treatment available for people who had this illness.”
The video, self-censored by the Smithsonian, lives on via the Internet. Don’t click below if you’re likely to be offended.
Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2010 Liberaland