David Wojnarowicz a Life Censored

Posted on December 7, 2010


David Wojnarowicz

Yesterday I read on my igoogle feed:

Association of Art Museum Directors

120 East 56th Street Suite 520 New York, NY 10022 Tel: 212.754.8084 Fax: 212.754.8087

New York, NY—December 3, 2010—In response to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery’s removal of artist David Wojnarowicz’s film from the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” the Association of Art Museum Directors issued the following statement: More:

The film “A Fire In My Belly” was removed from the exhibition Hide/Seek after the Smithsonian was pressured by conservative politicians and the Catholic League on the grounds the work represented hate speech.

Catholic League president Bill Donohue called the work an act of “hate speech” against Christians, and began to pressure the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to reconsider funding for the Smithsonian. In response to this misreading of the work and mounting pressure, the work was removed from the exhibition on November 30, 2010.

Incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor threatened the Smithsonian with funding cuts if they didn’t bow down to their request to remove the film from the exhibition.

Earlier this week, Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough created a storm of protest when he ordered the removal of a short excerpt of A Fire in My Belly, a thirty-minute video made in 1987 by Wojnarowicz. The video is a searing meditation on aspects of the AIDS pandemic.

I really had no idea who David Wojnarowicz was, until I did a little digging. I had never heard of the film “A Fire In My Belly” and I might not have ever heard of either without the efforts of John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Bill Donohue and G. Wayne Clough to censor the work. Now the world knows who David Wojnarowicz is and millions of more people will see his film thanks to their efforts to silence David’s voice. Funny how things work out!

So I found out who David Wojnarowicz was, watched his film and listened to his voice. His work didn’t light a fire in my belly but lit one under my butt! I haven’t written a blog post since June, I have just been too busy.

David’s work, his story, struck a nerve, not because his film was censored but  because his life and death were. Just look at his work, he depicts himself with his mouth sewn shut!

In 1987 when David made his film I was working as a Mental Heath Crisis Outreach Case Manager in Tucson Arizona. I was a member of the RAPP team, a homeless outreach program that took mental health treatment and service to the streets of Tucson. Our team had three case managers (Mental Health Clinicians) a Nurse RN and a Doctor Psychiatrist. We worked out of a drop in center located on the edge of downtown Tucson in an old railroad house. We took mental health treatment to our clientele wherever they were located, under bridges in homeless shelters in the outlying deserts in camps where they lived. We used the Drop In center for our offices, our pharmacy, crisis housing and its amenities, showers, mail delivery, emergency food distribution, group education and therapy, and French Toast Fridays. We networked with other service agencies and providers to deliver their services in our facility. And we served thousands of homeless clients over the years I worked there.

David Wojnarowicz was born in Red Bank, New Jersey in 1954, the product of an extremely difficult childhood brought on by an abusive family life and an emerging sense of his own homosexuality. Wojnarowicz dropped out of high school and was living on the streets by the age of sixteen. He turned to hustling (Prostitution) in Times Square. After hitchhiking many times across the U.S. and living for several months in San Francisco and Paris, he settled in New York’s East Village in 1978.

David Wojnarowicz died of AIDS-related complications on July 22, 1992 at the age of 37. MORE:

“Bottom line, if people don’t say what they believe, those ideas and feelings get lost. If they are lost often enough, those ideas and feelings never return.” David Wojnarowicz

When I read the first paragraph of his Biography on wikipedia I knew David– in fact I have known hundreds of David’s but the one that came immediately to mind was a Larry. I met Larry after he survived a failed suicide attempt. He was homeless, depressed, ill and he had full blown AIDS. He was in the county mental health hospital and his case worker called us to help with his discharge planning and continued mental health treatment. Larry was very much like David not only in age and appearance, the two shared a similar history in their lives. Now homeless and sick Larry moved into one of our crisis housing units and we began the process of treating Larry and wrapping services around him so he could survive, he was too sick to live on the streets.

In the mid 1980’s Aids was not well understood, it was a Social Disease and many medical providers/Doctors did not want to treat patients with aids.

Much of the controversy about David’s film is an 11 second segment where a crucifix is seen on the ground with ant’s crawling all over it. This scene is the focus of the Catholic Leagues assertion that David’s film is hate speech.

What I read from the film is that David felt he was abandoned by the church and society.  A society that censored homosexuality and aids, a social disease largely believed to only infect the unworthy. Society followed religious doctrine to condemn the David’s and Larry’s because of their sexuality and their economic circumstances. If aids had been infecting white middle class heterosexual men this story would have been no story at all. Aids would have been eradicated.

The kitchen in the old house that served as our drop in center was used for everything from French Toast Fridays, (we would get the day old bread and eggs from the Food Bank and we cooked french toast for anybody who was hungry on Fridays, it was a great time), to a meeting space. Donna, a counselor from the Tucson Aids Project was a regular. Donna provided Aids education and services to our homeless clients.

Donna was a class act, she used the kitchen for her aids prevention class. She would set the large kitchen table with 12 place settings each with a large dildo on a base in the center. It was like a surreal last supper. Instead of silverware each place setting had an assortment of condoms surrounding the centerpiece.

Donnas class was always full, young women and men attended to learn about aids and how to protect themselves. Donna would start with a brief lecture about what aids is, how you catch it and how you prevent getting it. She would then demonstrate how to use condoms. The one part that we always found humorous was when Donna taught her class how to cheek a condom and slip it on a penis before preforming oral sex. It was an image that never leaves you to see a group of people practicing cheeking a condom on a dildo at a kitchen table.

You may be thinking this little story is a sexual metaphor or that it is funny, yeah it is, but its not funny. The class was survival training for hundreds of young women and men, many barely in their teens, homeless and victims of the street. Streets where to survive they had to trade sex for money or shelter. Many we interviewed routinely preformed sex acts on middle class white men who then went home to their wives and families.  Donna saved a lot of lives.

After David’s film was removed from the Smithsonian Exhibit the Transformer Gallery in Washington D.C. Has exhibited the film, showing it in their front window so that people on the street can view the film and make their own conclusions. The Transformer has also become ground zero for those who are protesting the censorship of the film. You can watch the film on their website just click the more link.  MORE:

One afternoon the team was in the kitchen for our weekly staff meeting. We were being trained in the use of mouth barriers used to perform CPR. Most people in the social service and medical community had real concerns about physical contact with clients and patients. Not only were most people concerned about the rising spread of aids, but were equally concerned with the spread of hepatitis a,b,and c and tuberculous all present in the homeless population and real risks. Many professionals simply choose not to have any physical contact with anyone regardless of the emergency.

You never really know what you’re going to do until you have to make that choice!

Our crisis housing units were located just outside the kitchen door, these were small single rooms used by railroad workers when the facility was a railroad complex in the 1920’s.

Suddenly Larry stumbled through the door just as our meeting was ending, he collapsed on the floor. Rich, our Doctor determined Larry was not breathing and had no pulse, he was dead. Rich directed us to begin CPR. I pulled the new mouth barrier out of my pocket, placed it over Larry’s mouth and gave a rescue breath. Nothing happened, no air went through the device. You see the device, the mouth barriers, have check values built into them so that air from the victim can’t blow back into your mouth, they are oneway devices and I had placed mine on Larry’s mouth backwards.

I had to choose right then and there. I turned the barrier over and started again. We worked on Larry for what seemed like hours, but it was only minutes. The Paramedics arrived and took over. They brought Larry back.

In addition to Aids Larry also had TB and I would spend the next year being tested to see if I got it, I didn’t. Larry had everything; thats what happens when you get full blown aids. All of your body’s immune system fails and everything you were immune to now surfaces. You see its not the virus that kills you, its everything else. Any little sickness can develop into a deadly disease.

In A Fire in My Belly David attempts to relate his experience as an aids victim. For me the film speaks to the experience I  had as a caregiver having seen the worst of this disease and the worst of what our society has to offer its victims. If the religious right and political conservatives want to censor Davids voice perhaps it is because he hits a nerve. A nerve connected to their shame for making a horrific disease an anti-social illness. Over the last several decades these same groups have worked hard to attach morality to Aids and its victims. I can tell you Aids the virus has no moral conscience it does not choose its victims based on sexual orientation or economic status it is simply a viral organism that does one thing, it infects healthy human beings and it kills its victims.

Censorship on a national level can breed Monsters and Monstrous societies. Societies that follow singular ideas like ants following chemical pheromones. With ants its simple.

Hitler became a monster and he led the people of Germany to become a monstrous society. In the beginning Adolf was an artist. An artist that was threatened by different ideas, intellectual ideas. Adolf waged a cultural war against artists and intellectuals that eventually became a censorship of not only art, but of the people themselves who did not agree with his ideas or who he believed were inferior. Of course you know the rest of the story. Stalin and Mao started the same way, they censored the voices of intellectual opposition to their ideas. Do you now see the danger?

Having also worked in the Art Museum Business, I have grave concerns that the National Galleries would fold under political pressure. In my experience and philosophy institutions like the Smithsonian hold in their trust a sacred obligation to protect free speech, even when it is controversial and inconvenient. Even when threatened with funding cuts.

Because really Mr. Secretary G.Wayne Clough do you really think John Boehner, Eric Cantor or Bill Donohue will be on your side and give you the support you are going to need in the coming months and years?

What you have done is damaged the trust and perhaps the support of your real supporters, the intellectual community. Even Rush Limbaugh questioned your actions. After all he doesn’t want to be censored either.

Larry never really recovered from his trauma in the kitchen. His health deteriorated over the next few months. The last time I saw him he was in the County Hospital a shell of his former self. An emaciated skeletal figure suffering from the ravages of Aids. I will never forget his eyes the last time I saw him, his once beautiful blue green eyes were now pale, washed out translucent bulbs, like gelatin peering out of his tortured face.

Larry died that night in his sleep. I have long regretted that we helped save him in the kitchen that day several months before his death. We did him no service. We only allowed him to live long enough to suffer a horrifying death. This is something I will always have to live with and I may never be able to find peace with. Who did we save him for? Was it for him or us?

Why did these young men David and Larry who could easily be mine or your sons have to get Aids and die? Why were they failed by our free society, their religions and their leaders? Branded as unworthy, invisible and censored. We, me, our team was a sorry substitute for all they were denied in the richest freest country the world has ever known.

That is if you still believe all of the Propaganda.

The exchange of ideas, ideas that are different from yours, ideas that open dialogue is how we advance. Even when those ideas make us uncomfortable and offend us. Bill Donohue could have taken the position that Davids film inspired him to lead a more open and thoughtful Christian life, he didn’t. He chose to attack what frightened him. John Boehner and Eric Cantor could have vowed to end poverty to end aids and protect children who are unfortunate victims of their economic and social status. They could fund shelter, education and support for these kids before they become victims. They did not. G.Wayne Clough could have stood his ground and protected the intellectual ideas of Davids art, he could have turned this into a magnificent win for democracy and freedom. He did not.

I might never have shared this experience with you had it not been for David Wojnarowicz and his art his ideas.

“Bottom line, if people don’t say what they believe, those ideas and feelings get lost. If they are lost often enough, those ideas and feelings never return.” David Wojnarowicz

Which leads me to the question: How dangerous is a National Gallery controlled and curated by politicians? We will see.

Interesting reading and links

Boehner and Cantor call for closing of Smithsonian exhibit

My Take: Didn’t Jesus die for gays, too?

Transformer Gallery

Ants on a Crucifix in Norman Rockwell’s America

Bullying and Censorship

S. Brent Plate’s article is excellent: Read On

Wojnarowicz’s Ant-covered Jesus: Blasphemy or Religious Art?

Artist David Wojnarowicz’s meditation on death is surreal and grisly — but that doesn’t make it “anti-Christian.” Just the opposite.