December 23, 2010
Religion, Democracy and the Censorship of “Fire in My Belly”
— Spencer Dew
David Wojnarowicz—who once, to protest President Reagan’s silence on the AIDS crisis, sewed his lips together—is again in the news, this time posthumously, with his eloquent 1987 video of mourning, love, and survival, “Fire in My Belly.” The film has been labeled “hate speech” by Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, who says it is anti-Christian because of the eleven-second segment in which ants are shown crawling back and forth over a crucifix.
This piece had been on exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery as part of the show “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” That the film has now been removed and the show censored owes as much to politicians like Eric Cantor, who spoke of the privately-funded show as “an outrageous use of taxpayer money” and “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season,” as to the Catholic League, which has a long history of pushing for the censorship of what it finds to be outré instances of the use of religious symbolism in contemporary art.
Wojnarowicz’s oeuvre, which spanned visual, performance, and literary art, alternated between anger at what he took to be Christian hypocrisy and an embrace of Christian imagery, from Saint Sebastian to Jesus, with particular attention to taking on the suffering of others. “Fire in My Belly” features images of bread and blood, candy skulls, and coins cascading into bandaged hands.
Professional commentators right and left have had a field day with this case, yet they too have avoided any sort of close examination of what the video might actually be saying about Christianity. On the right, Donohue’s empty rhetoric is repeated. For example, Tucker Carlson wondered aloud, “Wouldn’t it just be easier for liberals” to “build their own museum, and have a temple to anti-Christian art?” On the left, the discussion takes equally righteous tones, evoking the horror of AIDS and the vague idea that this piece is, as a memorial to a dead lover, sacrosanct by default. Frank Rich, for instance, offers a comparison of sorts between Wojnarowicz’s film and the Keith Haring altarpiece “The Life of Christ” at Grace Cathedral’s AIDS chapel. Yet this piece, with angels ascending as to heaven, is worlds away from the grainy violence and horror, the tactile physicality and grotesquery, of “Fire in My Belly.”
The eleven seconds of ants crawling over a crucifix to which the Catholic League so vehemently objects can, indeed, be read as a gesture of considered theological critique. Wojnarowicz patterned himself off another artist who engaged repeatedly in Catholic imagery, the French symbolism poet Arthur Rimbaud. In one portrait series, Wojnarowicz photographed himself behind a makeshift mask constructed from a famous portrait of Rimbaud. As Rimbaud, in his masterwork “Season in Hell,” had dreamed of a new Eden were humans could exist in ignorance of the concept of the Fall into sin, which he took to be an inescapable conceptual “curse” of western civilization, so Wojnarowicz, from a young age, embraced the notion of nature represented in the lowliest of creatures as a counter-vision to Christian ontological claims. Not for him images of angels rising; rather, 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; a worldview that rejects—that fetishizes—the very love he felt for his recently deceased partner.
Whether the demand for censorship or the confusion of theological disagreement with anti-religious “hate speech” is more threatening to democracy is, ultimately, a moot question, however terrifying it might be. The Smithsonian’s “Hide/Seek” show will be remembered for its capitulation to censorship, yet for all of the buzz around Wojnarowicz’s piece and its removal, there is another gaping absence, that of actual consideration of the work itself and what it might be trying to express. Wojnarowicz took Rimbaud’s dictum “I am an other” as a methodological statement, a precondition for the creation of art, insisting that art must exist in relation—at once intimately personal yet also always communicative. The greatest disrespect for Wojnarowicz is not censorship; it is ignoring the content of that which was censored.
David Wojnarowicz, “Fire in My Belly,” Dailymotion video, 4:10.
Spencer Dew is a lecturer in the department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Iowa State University and the author of the forthcoming Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (CA: San Diego State University Press, 2010). Dew holds a PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School and is a former junior fellow in the Martin Marty Center and the former editor of the Religion and Culture Web Forum.