AIDS/HIV | Art and Design | Censorship | David Wojnarowicz | News

National Portrait Gallery Censors AIDS Artwork After Complaints from Catholic League That it is 'Hate Speech'


The Washington Post reports on some shameful censorship going on at the National Portrait Gallery with regard to their new exhibit Hide/Seek:

Wojnarowicz Today, after a few hours of pressure from the Catholic League and various conservatives, it decided to remove a video by David Wojnarowicz (pictured, right, in a portrait by Peter Hujar), a gay artist who died from AIDS-related illness in 1992. As part of "Hide/Seek," the gallery was showing a four-minute excerpt from a 1987 piece titled "A Fire in My Belly," made in honor of Peter Hujar, an artist-colleague and lover of Wojnarowicz who had died of AIDS complications in 1987. And for 11 seconds of that meandering, stream-of-consciousness work (the full version is 30 minutes long) a crucifix appears onscreen with ants crawling on it. It seems such an inconsequential part of the total video that neither I nor anyone I've spoken to who saw the work remembered it at all.

But that is the portion of the video that the Catholic League has decried as "designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians," and described as "hate speech" - despite the artist's own hopes that the passage would speak to the suffering of his dead friend. The irony is that Wojnarowicz's reading of his piece puts it smack in the middle of the great tradition of using images of Christ to speak about the suffering of all mankind. There is a long, respectable history of showing hideously grisly images of Jesus - 17th-century sculptures in the National Gallery's recent show of Spanish sacred art could not have been more gory or distressing - and Wojnarowicz's video is nothing more than a relatively tepid reworking of that imagery, in modern terms.

Until Tuesday afternoon, museum staff, under Director Martin E. Sullivan, believed that "Fire" was interesting art that made important points. And now it looks as though they're somehow saying that they were wrong about that, and that it really was unfit to be seen or shown, after all.

Really pathetic.

Watch the video, AFTER THE JUMP...

Hide/Seek has been very well received. Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes called it one of the best exhibitions of the year.

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  1. Oh, I don't know. I learned to censor out anything the Pope or the Catholic League has to say about anything years ago. It's just trash anyway.

    Posted by: Craig | Dec 1, 2010 9:07:45 AM

  2. Not only, then, does Towleroad claim for itself the power to determine what *is* hatespeech ("everyone who disagrees with our political prescriptions is a *hater,* not someone with a different point of view"), but it claims as well that it can determine which groups are permitted to use the dialogue-ending "hate" slur against others, and which are not.

    That's the sheerest, most straight-forward, unvarnished sort of intolerance toward others' views, and outright hackery.

    (BTW, asserting that something is art -- without an independent metric to validate that assertion -- is a claim to tradition. Claiming that something like "bullying" "is the way boys act," or "has always been done," &c., is a claim to tradition. If one is not an automatic sanction, then neither is the other. If one is, then so too is the other. Dignified positions and movements do not apply one set of standards and presumptions to their own claims, and a wholly separate, inferior and denigratory set of presumptions to the claims of others. In fact, it is just that sort of double-standard-based, denigratory, dismissive treatment that a coherent gay-rights movement would properly rail against.)

    Posted by: What ridiculous hackery | Dec 1, 2010 9:11:29 AM

  3. These are the same people who would rather close shop and leave children as orphans rather than follow the law and allow gays and lesbians to adopt. They also are enthusiastic supporters of christian regimes in Africa that murder and torture gays and lesbians. They aren't just hypocrites, they are pure evil.

    Posted by: gaylib | Dec 1, 2010 9:30:58 AM

  4. This is FASCISM.

    Jesus is not OWNED by Catholics or Christians.

    They say he was a historical person and a historical event.

    The Portrait Gallery caved out of fear of a funding backlash.

    So a dying gay man who was being oppressed by Christians at the time of his death can not even in art - in this case a historical piece - be allowed to exists.

    This country remains a backwater.

    Posted by: Tony X | Dec 1, 2010 9:31:57 AM

  5. @what a ridiculous username-

    Youdon't clearly understand the definition of hate speech and clearly you don't understand Art.

    This piece does not condone or encourage violent or harmful action against Catholics. the symbolism used could be interpreted to be discussing the harmful actions or lack of action by Catholics that cause further suffering to be with HIV. Though that is not my personal interpretation- the symbolism of ants on a cross for me is to juxtapose great suffering(the Jesus & the cross reference) with being treated as insignificant(the ants)
    That is the beauty of art- it is open to many interpretations, not just the Catholic League's(who is one sorry ass bigot with a computer BTW).
    The fact that they/he is making this piece of work more about Catholics then people suffering with Aids speaks volumes, and is ironic as it only strengthens the probable intention of this use of symbolism.
    The museum should be ashamed of themselves for censoring this.

    Posted by: krispy | Dec 1, 2010 9:35:14 AM

  6. @whatridiculoushackery: You say, "BTW, asserting that something is art -- without an independent metric to validate that assertion -- is a claim to tradition. Claiming that something like "bullying" "is the way boys act," or "has always been done," &c., is a claim to tradition. If one is not an automatic sanction, then neither is the other. If one is, then so too is the other."

    In the case of bullying, if these boys you speak of were older they would be called criminals. It is illegal to assault, harass or rob (even if it is only lunch money) someone.

    Art is an expression of thought not a tradition.

    Posted by: Dennis in FL | Dec 1, 2010 9:46:10 AM


    You didn't read the Washington Post piece at all, did you? You just saw the headline and started typing. You have no idea what the video is about, you haven't noticed that this exhibit was lauded at one of THE best art exhibits put out this year, and you clearly haven’t done anything to educate yourself about art history or theory.

    Stop trolling the message boards of gay blogs and go visit a damn museum. Then come talk to us about hackery.

    Posted by: Zack | Dec 1, 2010 9:48:36 AM

  8. Fuck talking about 'art'. They hate it b/c it's created by a well-known gay artist that spit on the Zombie Worshipers at every turn of his fascinating career. - Not b/c it's good/bad art.
    They want it out b/c they want YOU out. Every fag on this site is just another jesus-desecrating, piss-loving, baby-molesting freak to them - and y'all worry about whether this is actually art?

    As David said - I'd rather be feared than pitied. we should celebrate their fear.

    Posted by: MeaCulpa | Dec 1, 2010 10:04:05 AM

  9. @ Ridiculous. What in the hell are you babbling about? Please learn something about art, hate speech, and successful movements. Please learn how to write soherent sentences. And, as Zack said, please learn to read.

    Posted by: justiceontherocks | Dec 1, 2010 10:07:33 AM

  10. Wow, it's a sad day when the National Portrait Gallery bows to pressure from the Catholic League and removes an exhibit.

    Posted by: Fred | Dec 1, 2010 10:15:36 AM

  11. Am I the only one that thinks the video is creepy?! Reminds me of something out of the Ring or the Haunting of Conneticut! LOL. But free speech?

    Religious people are always offended easily. Catholics with Jesus. Buddhists with Buddha. Muslims and their Prophet. ETC. They just hold the images as sacred, and easily offended.

    Posted by: Lol! | Dec 1, 2010 10:54:24 AM

  12. the catholic church should be the last one to charge hate speech. they are a leader in it. since when is it okay to censor an art exhibit because you don't agree with the message?talk about bullying. the catholic church is the biggest bully and continues to threats and intimidation to get its way.

    Posted by: walter | Dec 1, 2010 11:15:45 AM

  13. And this is different from how the Islamic fundamentalists act... how?

    Posted by: The Milkman | Dec 1, 2010 12:22:15 PM

  14. The backlash against gays is just beginning. Aren't you glad you punished those darned Dems for moving too slowly on our issues? The next two years will sure be fun.

    Posted by: candide | Dec 1, 2010 12:24:53 PM

  15. @ The Milkman: Agreed! Bill Donohoe seems to think roman catholicism is the state religion of the United States of America and therefore can dictate how everyone in the country should live. Does he not realize that he and the pope are both Nazis?

    Posted by: mad1026 | Dec 1, 2010 12:33:03 PM

  16. When I was young, I was taken to the art museum to see an exhibition about art in the dark ages. I asked the guide, “why there so many paintings of kings, queens, the saints and the apostles, but no paintings of ordinary people?”

    I was told that in those days, to get a portrait done, you had to be rich enough to be a patron who could afford to support an artist, or a church with enough money to pay for a painting. Ordinary people in the dark ages not only couldn’t afford to buy art, they hardly ever saw any outside of a church.

    But I was assured that these days there are art museums and galleries where anyone can look at and appreciate art of all kinds. You don’t have to be rich or royalty to see fine art any more.

    That is why I always support public art, even when people don’t particularly like it. If we start restricting what art people can see, we will be returning to the dark ages.

    Posted by: Wrecks | Dec 1, 2010 12:42:10 PM

  17. I don't see how gay groups would try to censor the upcoming film Dilemma for saying "electric cars are gay", and then be angry when christian groups try to censor another film which they see as offensive. The ants crawling over a crucifix actually seems to be more hate speech to me, than the joke that uses the word "gay" in its punch line.

    Posted by: Dennis not in FL | Dec 1, 2010 1:34:30 PM

  18. I agree. As a gay man, I find the video crude, odd, and offensive. It's not art just as it is some creepy vids strung together. And I'm not fond of the Catholics, just sayin!

    Posted by: Yeah, What? | Dec 1, 2010 1:47:05 PM

  19. The cross is just hocus-pocus, bowed to by a bunch of kooks. I'd believe in Santa before believing in the Catholic Church.

    Posted by: LAXJFK | Dec 1, 2010 2:44:27 PM

  20. As both a Gay man and an Entomologist, I must both decry the ludicrous act of censorship and also ask: What's so bad/hateful about ants?!

    Posted by: wirrrn | Dec 1, 2010 8:26:45 PM

  21. Here's my letter:

    Martin Sullivan
    National Portrait Gallery

    Dear Mr. Sullivan

    As an artist and a person living with AIDS, I found your statement about your censorship of David Wojnarowicz particularly insulting -- considering it came out on World AIDS Day.  This is a day of remembrance, reflection, and commemoration about those who died from and those still living with AIDS.

    Your insult in the statement doesn't even compare with the egregious CENSORSHIP you committed due to religious and political hatred by a handful of loudmouth bigots and haters.

    Art is social commentary and if we artists are not allowed to comment on the human condition without fear of retribution or censorship then I suggest you close your doors to the public immediately and enter the dry, dusty history books as the weak, impotent, and unimportant tool of bigots that you have proven yourselves to be.

    You owe the world an apology.

    David Wojnarowicz still speaks through his silence.

    Posted by: Bruce in Tampa | Dec 1, 2010 10:54:38 PM

  22. St. David. It's a good video. I watched it recently and didn't think
    it was hate speech. it is an image in a film, part of a group of images, that, in sum, make a statement, or propose a feeling or idea. What was the artist's intention? Is Linda Blair masturbating violently with a crucifix hate speech? Why not? David's film fits right in with his paintings in that seemingly different images are placed in context and relationships are discerned. Maybe the church should declare his huge body of work all 'hate speech'. Geezus, we finally get a major show of queer art at a national venue and it gets bullied.
    Knowing the church's doctrine on homosexuality, what was it doing going to see the show in the first place? The church is allowed to demonize, castigate, and denounce homosexuality, but when a homosexual says something that goes against the church, all HELL breaks loose. But, on the other hand, his work still manages to provoke all these years later. He's a great american artist who painted, was in a punk band, made sculpture, did performance, photography, wrote really great books, and made several film and video works. We should be celebrating him and his work, not marginalizing him. Hmmm.... great gay artist, got in trouble for his work when alive, and now. Is he being shoved back into the closet?

    Posted by: kodiak | Dec 1, 2010 11:04:25 PM

  23. it's the moral equivalent of a fatwa against cartoonists who draw pictures of Mohammed or against Salman Rushdie.

    Philistine hypocrites run the Roman catholic church and the National Portrait Gallery has bowed to them.

    Posted by: Danny | Dec 2, 2010 8:53:04 AM

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