David Wojnarowicz, a new media film artist, continues to stir controversy over his acclaimed “blasphemy” videos even after his passing due to AIDS in 1992. As part of an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery held in October 2010 titled "Hide and Seek" which aimed to show sexual differences in modern American portraiture, Wojnarowicz's video montage, Fire in My Belly (1986-87), caused an uproar of controversy due to offended visitors. The National Portrait Gallery then decided to remove the video due to threats to funding by the Catholic League and the House of Representatives. Exploding all over art news and media, this controversy caused a silent protest to occur shortly after the removal of the piece in which people declared to news companies and journalists the anger and frustration felt with the Smithsonian choice. Despite differing opinions on Wojnarowicz’s video, the ethics of censorship in the arts is challenged.
Coming from an abandoned background and wandering, lonely life, Wojnarowicz found himself exploring the arts in New York City with many other New York artists. Focusing on film art, Wojnarowicz shares his messages best through delving into his childhood, his identity as a gay man, and the travels he experienced in Latin America. Holland Cotter from The New Yorker states that Wojnarowicz attended a Roman Catholic school in which many of his religious beliefs were influenced and shaped. In Fire in My Belly, Wojnarowicz explores these three themes around a plastic crucifix in which ants are crawling over the decaying body of Jesus. Images of Jesus with the thorn crown appear throughout the four-minute video while the screeching apocalyptic cry of a woman yelling insane phrases such as “you are unclean!” haunt the video throughout. Later on, a man slowly is shown in the act of masturbation, amidst the shots back to the crucifix. The sharp cuts to different images make the viewer strive to make some kind of sense, some kind of narrative as to what Wojnarowicz is aiming to portray—which may be the cause for so much controversy. As understood from the artist, Wojnarowicz is claiming to express his deep emotional strife in slowly dying from AIDS, as the ants invading the body symbolize. The forceful and invasive movement and color of the piece (deep oranges, dark reds and blacks) do not create a pleasant atmosphere. The viewer is forced to interact and respond to the content of the piece, symbolizing how Wojnarowicz felt as an artist with AIDS. Comparing his battle with AIDS to the death of Christ is one of unparalleled attention—Wojnarowicz meant for this connection to be made, but he claims to not have sacrilegious motivations behind this piece.
Cotter states, “That “A Fire in My Belly” is about spirituality, and about AIDS, is beyond doubt” revealing the understanding that one cannot separate the two images in order to understand the art. As Cotter explains, Wojnarowicz understood Jesus to take on the suffering of everyone in the world and Wojnarowicz states. ‘ “I wanted to make a symbol that would show that he would take on the suffering of the vast amounts of addiction that I saw on the streets,” Wojnarowicz testified. “And I did this because I saw very little treatment available for people who had this illness” ‘. For Wojnarowicz, his art was a testament of self-sacrifice in how he struggled as a gay man with AIDS and he relates to the suffering in his own life, as Jesus did, in Wojnarowicz’s perspective.
Although many in the Catholic League, particularly President Bill Donohue, and the House of Representatives accused Wojnarowicz’s video as being deeply sacrilegious and offensive to Christian’s in particular, the controversy goes deeper in questioning the ethics of censorship in a nation that claims to be free to express. At the silent protest, many used this tenant of American foundation as an argument against the removal of Wojnarowicz’s piece. A Fire in My Belly challenges the standards of what is acceptable and “good” art with its controversial and confusing content and images. Although, this challenge is needed in order to better define the community of art and how people understand the world through artistic expression. Therefore, Wojnarowicz’s video is a part of that conversation, rather than hindering the conversation from progressing. Although many do not necessarily enjoy the piece, or resonate with the piece, Wojnarowicz’s voice is still heard amongst the artistic community—as all artists of every form and medium are allowed. As a Christian woman who is deeply moved by the history of art and the many artists, I ponder the ethics of censorship in a world that deeply understands freedom of expression excludes any kind of censorship, for censorship brings control from a set group of people. In our world, people do not like to be told what to do or what to see, so Wojnarowicz is challenging this tension in our society through the medium of art. Art is forceful and influential, so having the knowledge of this truth along with the discernment to enter into conversations surrounding art such as this, or not involve oneself, continually renews and redefines the definition of art in a society characterized by difference of expression and belief.