Piss Christ (1987) by Andres Serrano.
If the news of the past few weeks has felt like a re-run of the 1980s—ongoing recession, government cuts, riots in London, Tories casting aspersions on the undeserving poor, the threat of another royal wedding—then add to the list of déjà vu moments a flurry of outrage concerning art and religion in America that’s like a recapitulation of the Helms vs. NEA spats of 1989. On that occasion Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ was in the firing line, accused of being a blasphemous portrayal. This week it’s been the turn of a video installation of a short film made the same year, A Fire in My Belly, by David Wojnarowicz, a work featured in an exhibition I linked to a couple of weeks ago, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC. A Los Angeles Times piece previewing the exhibition also connected Hide/Seek and the earlier attacks by the right against the NEA, ending by saying “Times and attitudes change”. Well, not always…
A Fire in My Belly (1987) by David Wojnarowicz.
Piss Christ notoriously shows a plastic crucifix immersed in urine; A Fire in My Belly is a 30-minute film which features among its blizzard of images a crucifix besieged by marauding ants. Wojnarowicz’s work wasn’t even mentioned in the LA Times piece but this week’s furore has made it the focus of the entire show after the gallery withdrew the video following protests from the usual suspects, the Catholic League and a right-wing politician, Rep. John Boehner. The complaints are the standard bluster about blasphemy (again) and taxpayers funding “filth”. None of the complainants appear to care that Wojnarowicz’s film is a tribute made by a gay artist to his friends as they were dying from AIDS during the 1980s, a disease which also killed him in 1992, they see the work only as an offensive act. It’s too much to expect anyone reacting with such fervour to consider that the artist may have been comparing the suffering and treatment of people with Aids in that decade with Christ’s suffering on the cross, to do so would be to admit that the artist might have a point. In response to the work’s withdrawal the Transformer Gallery in Washington DC has been screening the film and organised a protest at the National Portrait Gallery. (Update: They also issued an open letter urging the reinstatement of the work.)