The Smithsonian’s decision to remove David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” video from its Hide/Seek exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is already made and done. The piece is gone, but it has popped up in a number of other locations, including a display at the New Museum and Transformer Gallery in DC. The question is, should the piece be restored to Hide/Seek?
The “deletion” of the piece immediately touched off a scandal in the art world as the museum was impugned with committing censorship, deliberately limiting artists’, and curators’ freedom of expression. Add to that that the offense taken to the piece is based on a clear misunderstanding of the work’s meaning and context and you’ve got a clear case of utter stupidity. Yet no matter the complaints or criticisms, the Wojnarowicz will not be un-removed. It has been excised from the exhibition, and it will stay excised whether it is replaced or not.
Making the decision to remove the piece is irrevocable. The absence of the Wojnarowicz has become a strong symbol and rallying point for the art world against censorship, stronger perhaps than the restitution of the piece would be. After all, the social and political context behind the decision still exist. LATimes critic Christopher Knight and Modern Art Notes’ Tyler Green have both suggested that the deletion is part of a deeper unrest on the right and a desire and willingness to reignite the culture wars. Knight summarizes in one fell swoop the conflict surrounding the piece:
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.
The removal of the Wojnarowicz made the video go viral, in a real-world sense. It is now omnipresent in the online art world, instantly accessible through YouTube and on view in more than a handful of art institutions, with viewings and protests still in planning. Because of the video’s absence in one venue, it is now everywhere. The whole case is an object lesson for those who would censor art (and anything, for that matter, see Wikileaks): in the globalized, online world, censorship is nigh impossible, and attempts are ill-advised. In the end, if the Smithsonian, our governmental museum, won’t show a piece of art, the rest of us will. The display of the video in so many other venues is another symbol of the network of support the work has found in reaction to its failed censorship.
So what should the Smithsonian staff do? I suggest they leave the space empty and put up a sign where the Wojnarowicz used to be: “This art work has been censored by the United States government under Republican political pressure.” How’s that for transparency?
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