Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Why David Wojnarowicz Is Much More Important to America Than Those Campaigning Against "A Fire in My Belly"

David Wojnarowicz's memoir Close to the Knives changed my mind about the nature of the political issues involved with homosexuality in the United States. Growing up gay, I had always felt that there was something tyrannical about how gay Americans were treated (we were asked to pay the same taxes but were not accurately or fairly represented in public discourse and certainly not treated equally via federal or most state legislatures [things have improved in that department since I was a kid]). So it was simply an issue of fairness to my mind.

Wojnarowicz however got me to see that the struggle by homosexuals in this country isn't just about civil rights, but rather about human rights. He didn't tell his story from the position of a subsection of culture that's "other." Rather, he told it from the position of a human. A compassionate, flawed, kind, generous, vulnerable, determined human. Anyone with a heart and open mind could identify with his anger. He loved life, and his, as troubled and full of misery and bigotry as it had been, was being extinguished far too early. And like the prince of a man he seemed to be, he would not go quietly into that he told us how things really were, how things really felt, how people really behaved, and what it meant to be so freaking alive and want to see so much of the world that you could barely stand to sit still. He saw things, Mr. Wojnarowicz, about who we are as a nation that only those with the clearest of vision would notice. It wasn't a pretty picture he offered us. There will be no Disney musicals based on Close to the Knives or "A Fire in my Belly" or any of his other work perhaps. But it was a heart-breakingly honest human picture.

And so I find it remarkably ironic that leaders of this country who reportedly never bothered to visit the exhibition from which the cowards at the National Portrait Gallery removed Wojnarowicz's video "A Fire in My Belly," but still jumped up on their soap boxes only after seeing a snippet of the film, have framed their objection as: "American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy."

If the nation has more honest, and more reassuring depictions of human frailty and the struggle for survival than Wojnarowicz's work, I for one would love to see them. Where are they? Why are you hiding them from us in this economy?

Now I will acknowledge and even applaud the diligence of the Catholic League in protesting what it sees as disrespectful treatment of Christian images. It is as important to ensure their freedom of speech as it is anyone else's. I do, however, wish Bill Donohue would watch the film with a more open mind than I think he has and with a bit more art history under his belt. As the Los Angeles Times' critic Christopher Knight so aptly stated the case:
Ants and bugs are an age-old artistic symbol that laments the frailty of human beings and earthly existence. As Ecclesiastes puts it: Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas -- “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” Ant-covered flora, bodies and animals turn up in everything from still life paintings in the largely Protestant 17th-century Netherlands to the silent Surrealist film, “An Andalusian Dog” (1929) by the Spanish director Luis Bunuel and artist Salvador Dali, a conservative Catholic.
Beyond the Catholic League, though, the GOP leaders lining up to protest in front of the cameras in this case are acting so transparently that it's kind of amazing they're showing up on video at all. Here again, Knight nails the irony:
Objectively speaking, an artist bent on making an anti-Christian diatribe would not spend just 15 seconds of a 13-minute video making it. Those images instead serve another function: To rebuke the same self-righteous moralism of those who are attacking the Smithsonian now.
Indeed, there's a scene in "A Fire in My Belly" during which ants crawl over US currency, something their actions consistently suggest the GOP views as much more sacred than they do true Christian values or imagery. If they were protesting that scene, it would be easier for me to believe in their sincerity.

Of course, many suspect that this brouhaha is just the typical Washingtonian distraction from some other more important issue...a circus for the masses while DC insiders hand out billions of our tax dollars to their true overlords. None of the outrage I've read online from those opposed to the video seems to be coming from people who've seen it or even people who are bothering to offer anything other than the pre-written talking points. It's a made-for-the-internet sort of controversy. But as such, it's hardly important to "American families."

Well, except perhaps those American families with gay members in them (who are once again being scapegoated here for political posturing), but even we don't really care if the National Portrait Gallery flushes its credibility down the toilet. We've seen the film and you too can see it without visiting NPG. You can watch it here, here, and here in person or here, here, here, and here online. (It is as stunning and soulful as it is I do encourage you to make the time).

What is important in a tough economy is that we resist the temptation to drive wedges between the subgroups of our population. That we remain as united as we can, work to help each other, and perhaps even take the time to reflect on our humanity as a reminder of why we're all in this together. No one has taught me more important truths about humanity than David Wojnarowicz. He's one of America's most important artists. He belongs in our museums. Now or any other time.

Also, don't miss this brilliant essay by Dan Cameron on Why Wojnarowicz Matters.

Labels: Art and politics


Anonymous Anonymous said...

At the end of the 1980's, I was living in Philadelphia and suffering through a host of personal tragedies. One aimless Saturday, I was wasting time in a bookstore when I discovered "Tongues of Flame," David Wojnarowicz' exhibition catalog. It captivated me, because here was something that actually told my story. Not only did David and I have similar experiences as gay men, we were both artists. I had just recently graduated with my MFA and seemed unprepared and unable to figure out how to manifest a career in art. Yet in this book, was the story of someone who started out with less opportunity than me and made a career. Well, if he could do it. so could I. I returned time and again to that bookstore and read a little more each time, until I just gave in and bought the book, though I could scarcely afford it.

"Tongues of Flame" changed my life. I have read all of his work since and have seen every exhibition mounted. Although he died just one year before I moved to New York, he gave me the courage to make that move. It was the best decision of my life.

Why his work is at the center of a controversy now, I can only put down as a smoke screen for other political issues at hand. The Catholic Church has born the brunt of a lot of anti-Catholic publicity lately (deservedly?). For years they "turned the other cheek" as was expressed in doctrine, which did not work in their favor. Now, as Catholic respect plummets, they are fighting back, desperate to regain some of what has been lost.

The government, when it comes to art, has a history of caving into protests, instead of holding to their ground; remember Tilted Arc and Mapplethorpe? It seems to be the cheaper way to gain the public favor.

12/08/2010 10:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Jedd Haas said...

re: "Why his work is at the center of a controversy now, I can only put down as a smoke screen for other political issues at hand."

This is part of it, but it's also about the reactionary sadism of the self-appointed guardians of morality. They thought they had an easy target. The man is long gone, so they figured it would be an easy take-down. It seems they were right; at least for now.

Just as the founder of Wikileaks sits in chains, so the reactionary forces wish to chain down expression they find dangerous. But ideas can't be killed, and it's up to those with "dangerous" ideas to keep getting them out there.

Now the backlash is coming from the opposite side of the spectrum, and if those dedicated to freedom of expression keep up the pressure, the end result will be another smashing victory.

12/08/2010 12:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post Ed and great comments above.

The amoral asses who appoint themselves our moral guardians are to be exposed and neutered, we can't let them win. A dumbed down public and corporate-owned media are not helping turn the tide in our favor.

---ondine nyc

12/08/2010 12:31:00 PM  
Anonymous said...

Excellent, inspiring post, Ed.

The protest's objective is the delegitimization and dehumanization of gay and lesbian Americans, and its timing seems keyed to the Senate debate and vote to end DADT.

In that sense, it's pure political theater and agitprop which, in its own way, is understandable, if cynical and deplorable.

Cowardice is the best possible explanation, though, for the Smithsonian's censorship of Wojnarowicz and its almost instant taking the Catholic League's political bait.

12/08/2010 01:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

The symmetrical response to this incident would be for a liberal interest group and its pet politicians to throw a commensurate fit when some charged, politically conservative work of contemporary art went on display at a Smithsonian museum. But this will never happen, because liberals don't operate that way, and the Smithsonian will never display a charged, politically conservative work of contemporary art, partly because the little that is being made can barely grow out of its cradle before someone tries to strangle it.

Every now and then somebody poses the question of why the art world leans so far to the left. Thanks to this incident, it occurred to me that in general, liberals feel free to score points with people who share their worldview through art but not politics, whereas conservatives feel the converse. (Hence you end up with Helms vs. Mapplethorpe or Giuliani vs. Ofili or Boehner vs. Wojnarowicz, but no like examples with a liberal politician and a conservative artist.) But that notion doesn't answer the original question - why is it thus in the first place? Until we have an answer, we're going to keep playing out this drama with different characters and the same outrage.

In the meantime, I have long said that you don't believe in the First Amendment if you're not ready to stand up for the free expression, if not the content, of hate speech. The Catholic League characterized the Wojnarowicz video as such, and now you get to decide whether you agree with me or not. Have fun!

12/08/2010 07:14:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Having already stood up for the Catholic League's right to free speech in the post and certainly standing up for the right to screen the video uncensored in the NPG, I'd say that we --- gasp --- are in agreement.

12/08/2010 07:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love how gays in the United States rant about how had they have it. Try being open in Iran or another Islamic state and see how long you last. We should be supporting the gay community worldwide by spreading democracy instead of only being worried about our community back home.

12/11/2010 10:33:00 PM  

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