The Most Controversial Video in America: A Fire in My Belly?

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 14, 2010 4:20PM

2010_12_fireinmybelly.jpg If Reagan-era debates about tax cuts and "government waste" don't already have you feeling like D.C. has turned back the clock to the 1980s, how about some good old fashioned culture war, with bonus AIDS politics?

It was 21 years ago that Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association used the works of artist David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) as a proxy for an attack on the National Endowment for the Arts, which partially funded Wojnarowicz's work. That fight ended with Wojnarowicz winning a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, but two weeks ago the very same work was removed from an exhibition in the Smithsonian following pressure from Catholic League president Bill Donohue, soon-to-be-Speaker John Boehner, and Representative Eric Cantor, who called it "an outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season."

As a reflection of the horror that was the AIDS crisis during one of its bleakest epochs by someone obviously steeped in a catholic imagery,A Fire in My Belly remains fully charged, even if the image cited most frequently in Wojnarowicz's video (a shot of ants crawling on a crucifix) seems less shocking than some from 80 years ago. Wojnawaricz himself said the ants were "a metaphor for society because the social structure of the ant world is parallel to ours."

The Smithsonian deserves praise for mounting the "Hide/Seek" exhibition about gay portraiture of which A Fire in My Belly was a part, even if they look cowardly for buckling under the pressure. The controversy heated back up on Friday, when the National Portrait Gallery commissioner resigned in protest of the censorship. The School of the Art Institute's Student Union Galleries are have joined The New Museum in New York and the CB1 Gallery in Los Angeles in showing showing A Fire in My Belly in protest. The video will be playing continuously on a monitor in their LG Space (37 S. Wabash Avenue). The Nightingale also showed the video over the weekend.

Censorship just doesn't have the same effect in the Internet era: You can watch the video online (definitely Not Safe For Work, especially if you work in the Smithsonian), and surely many more people have done so had not been for Bill Donohue's protest:

You also can watch David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly on Wednesday, December 15 at the School of the Art Institute's Eye and Ear Clinic, 112 S. Michigan Ave., room 1307, with an introduction by the Chair of the Department of Film, Video, New Media, and Animation Gregg Bordowitz and the participation of one of the Hide/Seek show curators via Skype.