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Hundreds rally against censorship in New York

Smithsonian pulls work in face of funding threat

Credit: Ted Kerr

About 500 people took to the streets of New York City on Dec 19 as part of an intensifying global response to the decision by administrators of the Smithsonian Institute to censor a video installation by queer icon David Wojnarowicz.

The work, Fire in My Belly, was part of an exhibition called Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery (NGP) in Washington, DC.

Smithsonian secretary G Wayne Clough ordered Fire in My Belly pulled on Dec 1. Neither the curators of the show nor the director of the NPG – a division of the Smithsonian, consented to the removal. The decision came after a group calling itself the Catholic League referred to Fire in My Belly as anti-Christian because of an 11-second clip in which ants crawl over a depiction of Jesus on the cross. In response, US congressmen John Boehner and Eric Cantor threatened to call for hearings on the NPG’s future funding.

Here it is:

Outcry over the Smithsonian’s decision to censor was swift and far-reaching. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Association of Art Museum Directors and media such as The New York Times and Art Info spoke out against the move. Galleries and museums around the world are showing Fire in My Belly free for the general public. Representatives from the Warhol Foundation and the Mapplethorpe foundation have said that they will make no future donations to the Smithsonian until the video is reinstated.

Canadian-born artist AA Bronson requested in protest that his work, Felix, June 5, 1994, be removed from Hide/Seek. Bronson’s work is on loan to the Smithsonian from the National Gallery of Canada. As reported in The Globe and Mail, the National Gallery of Canada CEO Marc Mayer has asked NPG director Martin Sullivan to “please consider [Bronson’s] request to withdraw” because “AA Bronson perceives the continued presence of his work in the exhibition makes him an accessory to censorship.”

Wojnarowicz died from AIDS in 1997. A prolific artist and writer, his work explores issues of queerness, sexuality, HIV/AIDS, power and the erotic. In 1989 Donald Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association, used Wojnarowicz’s work to question the funding of the US National Endowment of the Arts.

At the New York protest, people chanted, “Ho, ho! Censorship has got to go!” and “Ants in our pants! Fire in our bellies,” as they marched down Fifth Avenue from the Metropolitan Museum to the Cooper – Hewitt Museum, a New York division of the Smithsonian.

The direct action in New York City was organized by ART + (art positive), a new activist group that includes many members of New York’s large art community. At the rally, organizers asked that people go to, sign up and be part of the ongoing protest to reinstate the video and stop the censorship.