By **Rachel Somerstein**
Back in December, under pressure from Republican lawmakers and President of the Catholic League Bill Donohue, the Smithsonian pulled David Wojnarowicz’s film, A Fire In My Belly, from its exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” on view through the 13th of next month. The reason? A scene spanning 11 seconds in which ants crawl on a crucifix, which Donohue, Rep. John Boehner, and Rep. Eric Cantor, among others, perceived as “hate speech.”
“It would jump out at people if they had ants crawling all over the body of Mohammed,” Donohue said in a phone interview with Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times, “except that they wouldn’t do it, of course, for obvious reasons.”
Donohue added: “I’m not going to buy the argument that this is some statement about some poor guy dying of AIDS. Was this supposed to be a Christmas present to Catholics?”
In response, arts institutions around the United States scheduled “emergency” screenings of the film, which are still ongoing. AA Bronson, an artist represented in the exhibition, and Jim Hedges, the collector who loaned Jack Pierson’s “Untitled Self-Portrait” for the show, have petitioned the National Portrait Gallery to remove their works from view. And only days ago, the Museum of Modern Art purchased Fire In My Belly, which it will put on public view immediately. (If you can’t make it to MoMA, you can search for a nearby screening at hideseek.org, or watch the film on YouTube.)
The revival of the culture wars is uncomfortable to be sure. But it strikes one as strange, somehow out-of-date, and ineffective in a digital world, more than it is frankly disturbing. That’s because more people will see the film, even if only in the name of freedom of expression, than if Donohue hadn’t made a stink. The resultant vitriol and outrage on Twitter and other Web sites have engaged those who wouldn’t even have known about Wojnarowicz or the show to begin with. And maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to be reminded of the rights and freedoms we, as Americans, expect to enjoy.
My impression is certainly colored by a more outrageous instance of art censorship, which also took place this week: the Chinese government’s decision to demolish the $1 million Shanghai studio built by Chinese artist and political dissident Ai WeiWei. The government—which, in a strange twist, had commissioned the studio in an apparent bid to raise Shanghai’s profile as a cultural destination—evidently destroyed it as a means of punishing the artist for his activism, according to The New Yorker blog. In response, the artist planned to turn the demolition into a party. He wasn’t able to make it—he was placed under house arrest in Beijing just before the event—but 800 people showed up nevertheless, and the band played on, as it were. Ai shared photos of the destruction via Flickr, which you can see here.
“Art exists in different forms,” Ai WeiWei told the New Yorker. “What is art? Should we go back to the age of only sculpture? At least a hundred thousand people knew this news over the Internet. They watched it in front of their eyes.”
I know that Malcolm Gladwell dismissed the power of social media to spur a real revolution. But artists seem to be finding a way to do exactly that.
Copyright 2011 Rachel Somerstein
Rachel Somerstein’s feature on Obama’s art selections from the White House appeared in Guernica in 2009. Her essays and criticism have appeared in ARTnews and Next American City. She recently earned her M.F.A. from New York University and is presently at work on a collection of short fiction. She is a staff writer at Next American City. Read her liveblog of the Cities and Women’s Health conference here.