Mitchell Kahan, Director & CEO
On January 6, Akron Art Museum screened two versions of David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” for a small audience of 35 who braved slippery streets and snow. In Akron, there was little awareness about the controversial removal of an edited version of this video from the National Portrait Gallery’s groundbreaking exhibition on gay history – “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” The threats and counter threats over Smithsonian funding had not made local press until both Akron and MOCA Cleveland sent out press releases about our screenings, even though The Washington Post ran a full-page article calling for Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough to resign. Meanwhile, museums and galleries across the country are screening the piece.
Our museum audience was more interested in viewing the video than discussing it. But it is not easy viewing. The work exists in two versions, both found in the artist’s studio after his death and clearly marked as works in progress. The shorter version is the most powerful, 7 minutes of footage, mostly shot in Mexico, picturing various forms of cruelty. Cock fighting, bull fighting and Lucha Libre wrestling matches are roughly edited with scenes of poverty and a few images constructed by the artist, like a mouth sewn shut and the disputed segment of ants crawling on a crucifix resting in the dirt. For me, the latter is an image by an artist identifying with human suffering, with the ants a symbol of oblivious humanity overrunning the one who comes to redeem them.
This reading would be too subtle for the foes of gay rights and federal arts funding. Most importantly, it doesn’t serve their political agenda. So instead, they just call it “anti-Christian” and demand its removal, apparent retribution for an artist who won a Supreme Court case many years ago against The American Family Association. I agree with The Washington Post—we all lose when museums cave into bullies, in this case the Speaker of the House and the House Majority Leader, who threatened the Smithsonian with a loss of funding. It seems to me that the Secretary of the Smithsonian squandered an opportunity to inform Americans how the tenet of free inquiry is the foundation of humanities studies and scientific research.