“I am the invisible being”: The Smithsonian, Wojnarowicz, and the Othering of AIDS

David Wojnarowicz, "Untitled (Face in Dirt)," 1990. Silver print, 28.5 x 28.5 inches. Courtesy P.P.O.W.

The decision of the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, G. Wayne Clough, to pull David Wojnarowicz’s video, The Fire in My Belly, from the Hide/Seek exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, has been decried on many valid grounds. In both print and online publications, the controversy has already signified, variably, a looming return of the Culture Wars, another attack on the LGBTQ community, and the antagonists’ – Bill Donahue of the Catholic League backed by a number of Republican congressmen including Reps. John Boehner (Ohio) and Eric Cantor (Virginia) – lack of interest in the piece itself, since their opinions were formed in less than the 11 seconds that the depiction of the “blasphemous” cross in the video lasts. No less ironic is the fact that the removal of the work took place on the eve of December 1, World AIDS Day, while the artist himself had fallen victim to AIDS-related disease in 1992.

In many outlets, the removal of the video has been described as censorship. However, I think the case actually points to an act of self-censorship. Even though the decision came “from above” (and this information didn’t emerge until the next day) — from Clough calling on the Portrait Gallery to remove Wojnarowicz’s piece, with poor director Martin Sullivan left to justify the decision — the truth is that a robust, highly visible institution succumbed to the pressure of a few loudmouths, thereby counteracting the rationale for featuring A Fire in My Belly in the first place. In order to protect its interests and its federal funding, the Smithsonian preemptively capitulated to the protesters’ demands. The very same mechanism led the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC to cancel the presentation of the retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe 20 years ago — clearly demonstrating how little has really changed since then.

The situation sets up a(nother) dangerous precedent with repercussions reaching far beyond LGBTQ, religious, HIV/AIDS, or any other identifying community. It promises a compromised art-viewing experience for us, the public that actually bothers to go to the museums and is interested in determining the meaning of art for ourselves. Big institutions not willing to stand up to the bullies, as Robert Storr suggested on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Mapplethrope/NEA scandals, paint a very bleak picture indeed for exhibitions we might encounter in the near future. So much for the very nature of artistic production, particularly its affective and thought-provoking capabilities.


In addition, even if smaller reactive efforts, such as Transformer Gallery’s decision to screen Wojnarowicz’s video, as well as the December 2 protest march in response to the NPG’s action, can stand up to similar smear-technique pressures, we are nonetheless facing a very acute fragmentation — if not silencing — of discourse. Clearly, there is no room for public disagreement, only public outrage. The mainstream institution (the one supposedly “for all” invested in the “increase and diffusion of knowledge”) has been effectively and successfully emptied out.

Yet, even more than this, in all the current Internet and media buzz aflurry, there is an important blind spot I want to call attention to. Having studied both the controversy, and Hide/Seek’s elegant webpage itself, I am seriously concerned about the othering of “the other” that occurs while gay and lesbian desire is supposedly being celebrated. What we are dealing with here is a very uncomfortable othering — the suppression of AIDS itself. And in this instance, it is not just the right wing who is to blame (I haven’t seen the exhibition at the Smithsonian, so my observations are only drawn from the NPG website and the condensed exhibition narrative it plots out). The Hide/Seek curators are accountable too. They paint a bland, morose picture of the 1980s, during which “the response [of gay community to AIDS crisis] was elegiac, moving, and profound.” In their view, at that time, there was no room for Wojnarowicz’s wrath, only González-Torres’s sweet, quiet candy mounds. What is worse, the show’s narrative suggests that “recently [in the AIDS battle]… a rough equilibrium has been achieved,” allowing gay and lesbian artists to pursue other themes than those that preoccupied them during the years of crisis. With the removal of A Fire in My Belly, the last trace of outcry, AIDS is safely sealed off either as a problem of the past or simply pushed beyond the boundaries of America.

In the interview for the New York Times, Martin Sullivan himself contributes to such foreign image of the disease by claiming that “[Wojnarowicz’s] piece … made in the late ’80s in Mexico, had much more to do with the reality of the suffering of the AIDS epidemic in Latin American culture, with that vivid, colorful imagery and sometimes shocking metaphors.” Not only are we dealing here with an outrageous stereotype of Mexican culture, or of Latin American culture in general, but also the sense that strong emotions, graphic pictures, pain, and suffering that are pushed out far beyond the boundaries of the U.S.. Perhaps not incidentally then, Hide/Seek dedicates so much space to abstraction as the premiere Modernist vehicle for the expression of socially unacceptable desire. Everything is (and has to remain) calm on the Western front.  I wonder what artist and activist Gregg Bordowitz would say to that.

It is extremely disappointing that by removing Wojnarowicz’s video, the National Portrait Gallery deprived the exhibition of an opportunity to build alliances beyond those of sexuality or gender. While the AIDS crisis might be fast becoming a distant memory in the U.S., it would be foolish to believe that it simply doesn’t exist. Hence, the loss of The Fire in My Belly speaks to a profound, different kind of loss – the loss of empathy that reaches beyond identificatory, economic, and political boundaries, and that art, in its puzzlement, brilliance and yes, outrage, can help us understand.

Dorota Biczel is a writer and curator currently based in Barcelona.