Fighting the perception that all Catholics are as conservative as those espoused in William Donohue’s Catholic League call for the Smithsonian to remove David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” from Hide/Seek, Catholics United has begun a petition calling for closer scrutiny Donohue’s organization. Specifically, they target his high salary and his claim to represent the wishes of all Catholics. In the meantime, artist AA Bronson has repeatedly been denied his request to have his seminal work “Felix, June 5, 1994” removed from the exhibition.

The Catholics United newsletter begins,

Did you know that Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, pays himself $399,156 a year to manufacture controversies in [Catholicism’s] name?  Donohue is raking it in while most Americans suffer through the worst recession in a lifetime. That’s why it’s so disturbing that last week, U.S. Catholic Bishops president Archbishop Timothy Dolan endorsed Mr. Donohue — one of the religious right’s most divisive culture warriors.

It continues to point out the fallacy that this one outlet could represent the opinions of all Catholics: “The fact that Donohue uses the Catholic name to advance his culture war is problematic enough. It’s even more shocking that the newly elected president of the bishops’ conference would actually endorse this type of behavior.” Check out the details of the newsletter here. So far 1,760 Facebook supporters have joined the effort to demonstrate an alternative opinion.

AA Bronson has been documenting his effort to get his portrait of Felix Partz removed from Hide/Seek. As a continuing protest, the gesture is a powerful one in sympathy with the censorship of Wojnarowicz’s video. Despite his repeated requests and a new assertion that the artist’s lawyer has advised him that he does have the legal ability to remove his work from the Smithsonian exhibition, the museum refuses to acquiesce. Says the artist,

My lawyer suggests that, according to my moral rights under copyright law in both Canada and the USA, I have the right to withdraw my work from Hide/Seek. Please remove my work from the exhibition immediately.

Bronson’s tweets speak poignantly,

Kriston Capps reports at Washington City Paper that Smithsonian Hide/Seek curator David C. Ward supports the museum’s decision not to remove AA Bronson’s work while remaining critical of the Wojnarowicz removal.

On top of it all, rocker queen, poet, writer and Robert Mapplethorpe co-conspirator Patti Smith spoke at the National Portrait Gallery in spite of the ongoing controversy. The December 11th talk passed without incident but she did reference the censoring of Wojnarowicz’s work. Sure, the official Smithsonian site doesn’t mention her comments, but the Pink Line Project has extensive reporting:

About the Hide/Seek exhibit, she applauded it for being a strong, beautiful, diverse exhibition and she said that she was grateful for the exhibition. Patti thought the exhibition should not be clouded by what she called a silly, religious overreaction, especially considering there were many more shocking images in the exhibition. She thought the controversy was more humorous than anything and has actually brought much more attention to the video and the exhibit than they would have otherwise gotten. Patti did not believe there was any comparison at all to the censorship of the Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Cincinnatti Museum.

And they cite what they consider her best line from the night, which is also reported by TBD:

I imagine Jesus coming back and embracing the ants and being appalled by the crucifix.

It’s disappointing that Smith chose the “this isn’t as bad as that” route in her discussion, which engages in a type of victimology that really leads nowhere. Her comment comes at a time when the Mapplethorpe Foundation has already followed the Warhol Foundation in ceasing funding to the Smithsonian.

The situation seems to just be swirling around at the moment with no one really clear on what direction things will head. The rise of alternative Catholic viewpoints protesting for tolerance is a step forward. If more institutional pressure or legal threat is brought to bear on the Smithsonian by the National Galley of Canada, I think they will remove AA Bronson’s work or face blacklisting on the exhibition circuit. The Wojnarowicz will not be reinstated and Clough isn’t going anywhere, though. More as it happens.

PS: If you’re confused, check out the related links below. Should clear things up and put your confusion on par with everyone else’s.

Hat tip @ArtVolumeOne

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators...

2 replies on “Wojnarowicz Update: Catholics United Fights Back, AA Bronson Still Rebuffed, Patti Smith Talks”

  1. I appreciate Hyperallergic’s continued coverage of the Wojnarowicz / Smithsonian affair. The decision of the Smithsonian to remove David Wojnarowicz’s video “A Fire in My Belly” from the exhibition Hide/Seek is regrettable. I wish they stood their ground—but it is easy for me to say from where I am standing. I also appreciate Hyperallergic’s willingness to highlight Catholics United opposition to the Catholic Leagues attack on art and free speech.

    As an artist from a Catholic background, I do not find “A Fire in My Belly” to be offensive to my faith or an attack on my religious values. William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, claims the work is “designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians.” I reject his position. Unlike Donohue, I do not associate ants crawling over a crucifix as hate speech. Like Mathis Grunewald and Rogier van der Weyden before him, Wojnarowicz’s video is an example of an artist using the crucifixion of Christ as a metaphor for human suffering.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Brendan. Yes, we agree. People who try to try to speak for others are doing everyone a disservice. I personally wish the mainstream Catholic Church was disavow the views of Donohue and his organization since I don’t think it represents the views of most Catholics.

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