AO News Summary – Washington: National Portrait Gallery removes David Wojnarowicz’s Video ‘Fire in my Belly’ after it is Deemed Offensive

December 8th, 2010

Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. Photo by Douglas Graham/ Roll Call/ Getty Images courtesy of

November 30th marked the beginning of the art world’s latest controversy with the National Portrait Gallery’s removal of a work on display deemed offensive by the National Catholic League and members of congress.  The piece in question is “Fire in my Belly” a video by artist David Wojnarowicz that was put on display October 30th as part of the groundbreaking exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.”  While the artist’s cut of the film is over 30 minutes long, the version on display at the National Portrait gallery was shortened to four minutes.  An 11-second portion of this cut showed a small crucifix covered with ants, an image William Donohue of the National Catholic League called “hate speech, designed to insult.”

more story and images, including screenshot of removed piece, after the jump…

A still from Fire in my Belly by David Wojnarowicz courtesy of The Washington Post

Donohue explains: “It would jump out at people if they had ants crawling all over the body of Muhammad, except that they wouldn’t do it, of course, for obvious reasons.” Mr. Donohue goes on to state his support for the federal government to cut its financing of the Smithsonian and other art institutions in circumstances such as these.

On November 30th, reports began to surface that House Speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and No. 2 House Republican Eric Cantor were threatening the Smithsonian with a demand that the exhibition be “canceled.”  These early published reports were unclear on whether either legislator had actually seen the show, but the work in question was pulled the same day.  By all accounts, the curators of “Hide/Seek” Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward were not consulted before the removal of “Fire in my Belly.”  In an interview with The Guardian, Jonathan Katz states that “”an exhibition explicitly intended to break a 21-year blacklist against the representation of same-sex desire now finds itself in the same boat.”  Katz goes on to say that “when the Smithsonian starts bowing to its censors, it abrogates its charge as our national museum.”

Robert Mapplethorpe Self-Portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution courtesy of

In a short statement explaining the removal of the piece, National Portrait Gallery Director Martin Sullivan explains that he felt the controversy over the work distracted from the important themes in the show. He writes, “”The calls and e-mails are suggesting that this was deliberately offensive on the part of the Smithsonian and we had it up during the Christmas holidays to be deliberately sacrilegious.” Initial reports stated that the decision to remove the video was made after Sullivan consulted with Richard Kurin, a Smithsonian undersecretary, and representatives of the offices of government affairs and communications.  On the evening of December 1st, ArtInfo published that the final decision to pull the work was made by Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, who was consulted over the phone.  This report was later confirmed by Clough himself in an email to Smithsonian staff and a smattering of various museum directors.

Ellen Degeneres, Kauai, Hawaii by Annie Leibovitz. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution courtesy of

Since the removal of the work, the conservative dialogue has shifted towards questions of misuse of taxpayer money to fund the arts.  “Hide/ Seek” is the largest and most expensive exhibition in the Portrait Gallery’s history, and represents a significant change for a museum known for its staid portraits.  The exhibition was funded by the largest number of individual donors in history for a Portrait Gallery show. The exhibition, which cost $750,000, was also underwritten by foundations that support LGBTQ rights and received no direct government funding.

Self-Portrait by Romaine Brooks. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution courtesy of

Conservative congressman Jack Kingston has publicly called the exhibition “sick and perverted” and has insisted on a halt on taxpayer funding for the Smithsonian Institution in these difficult economic times.  It is true that as part of the Smithsonian, the National Portrait gallery receives public funds.  Ultimately, the entire budget of the National Endowment of the Arts totals $170,000,000.

Camouflage Self-Portrait by Andy Warhol. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution courtesy of

For many, this recalls the year 1989 when the NEA lost 40 percent of its funding after a number of conservative members of congress were outraged over the public display of works by Robert Mapplethorpe depicting gay S&M, as well as Andres Serrano’s infamous “Piss Christ” which was not included in Hide/Seek.

Piss Christ by Andres Serrano courtesy of artnet

“Hide/Seek” is the first survey at a national museum to examine the depiction of same-sex lifestyle and intimacy. Artists represented include Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz and 19th-century artist Thomas Eakins.  In a public statement released on December1st director Martin Sullivan said,  “we are certainly not going to shut down the entire exhibition or take other pieces out of it.”

In response to the removal of the work, several galleries and institutions have reacted by displaying the work.  The New Museum, which gave a retrospective to David Wojnarowicz in the late 90’s is now displaying the work in its lobby.

Related links:

Author’s webpage [jfranco]
Exhibition main page [National Portrait Gallery]
National Portrait Gallery bows to censors, withdraws Wojnarowicz video on gay love [Washington Post]
Video Deemed Offensive Pulled by Portrait Gallery [New York Times]
Critic’s Notebook: Smithsonian Institution fails to stand up to anti-gay bullies [Christopher Knight in the LA Times]
Hide/Seek: Too shocking for America [The Guardian]
The New Museum Shows Disputed Video [NYTimes]