Tuesday, December 28, 2010


While art museums have become more risk averse, it is unusual for them to buckle under pressure once the decision to exhibit an artwork has been made. Take for instance the response of Cheryl Sotheran, then Chief Executive of Te Papa, back in 1998 when the religious right attacked the museum for exhibiting a work by Tania Kovat of a small statue of the Virgin Mary inside a latex condom. Sotheran allowed the protests outside the museum to continue, she fronted up to the media and she advocated for the work as relevant and significant art.

In contrast there has been a recent example of a major cave-in by a prestigious American museum. The National Portrait Gallery in Washington (one of the Smithsonian museums) removed the video A Fire in my Belly by artist and AIDs activist David Wojnarowicz from Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture after complaints from a group calling itself the Catholic League.

The response from most US museums has been public outrage. The Andy Warhol Foundation threatened to withdraw funding for Smithsonian activities and a number of museums decided to show A Fire in my Belly in protest. The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles was one of them. 

Watching the 20 minute video, it is hard to understand how a couple of brief sequences (11 seconds in total) of ants crawling over a crucifix were noticed in the torrent of Mexican religious and street imagery of skeletons, cock fights, bull fights and full-on wrestling matches, let alone caused offence. Still, the removal of the work in one place amidst a major media storm has allowed thousands more people like us to see a work that would never have had such exposure without the attention of the censors.

Image: The Wojnarowicz film on view at the Hammer. You can view A Fire in my Belly yourself here.