Controversy, art, and “Fire in My Belly”

Over the two years this blog has been in existence, I’ve called out quite a fair number of people and organizations that have attempted censorship of the expressions of others. I believe very strongly in freedom of speech and freedom of the press as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution (and as acknowledged in, for example, Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights). I also agree in principle with the stated mission and objectives of the Smithsonian Institution. I recognize the Smithsonian’s prestige, but I am not in the least intimidated by it.

Especially when the people in charge of the Smithsonian today do things like censoring the work of artist David Wojnarowicz, who has been deceased since 1992. More horrifying than the censorship was its motivation. Two Republican Congressmen (Eric Cantor and John Boehner) threatened to yank funding for the Smithsonian if the video “Fire in My Belly” was not censored. In the words of Rep. Cantor, the exhibit is an “outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”

I find this assertion abominable and a slap in the face at the intent of the First Amendment. Yes, some art is controversial, and there are pieces of art that may be offensive to certain groups or individuals. That’s hardly a reason to threaten to slash the budget of the Smithsonian like a ten-foot-tall growth of weeds, and Reps. Cantor and Boehner should be ashamed of themselves for such a heavy-handed action.

The good news is that the art community has stood up for the First Amendment. In particular, the Warhol Foundation has demanded the restoration of the exhibit under threat of a cessation of funding. Also of note, Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice published an open letter to Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough which states in part:

…your decision to censor David Wojnarowicz’s art has sullied the reputation of the National Portrait Gallery and does a disservice both to the arts community and the public. For artists, it suggests that in order to be considered by your gallery, their art may have to be uncontroversial. For the public, it suggests that what they see at the gallery may not be the full story, that exhibitions may be tailored so that they do not offend anybody. Neither scenario is positive.

Censorship of the arts is the last thing that an art institution should be doing. You have set a low standard for yourselves, and for your public. The National Portrait Gallery plays an important role in the cultural life of the city and the nation. Your decision sends the worst possible message to artists, to other cultural institutions and to the American people.

As commendable as both of these moves are, the management of the Smithsonian has yet to flinch. This censorship is every bit as bad as the grants Andres Serrano lost in the wake of Piss Christ, which some of my readers might even be too young to really remember. I just happened to be reading Time that month, or I would not have known about it either. Yes, I will admit there was a time I did not follow the art scene that closely. Apparently, the entire Piss Christ controversy has been long forgotten because it’s being repeated. As said by George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Or, if you prefer a more contemporary quote, there’s Yogi Berra’s “It’s deja vu all over again.”

Art made to be non-controversial to avoid censorship is much more likely to wind up boring. A nation with boring art is doomed to become a nation of boring people. My own life is boring enough some days; it’s nice to be able to go to an art gallery and see something interesting.

I want to see America stay interesting. I can’t be the only one.