Alex Blaze

More on Smithsonian art censorship

Filed By Alex Blaze | December 22, 2010 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media
Tags: ACT UP, censorship, David C. Ward, David Wojnarowicz, Diamanda Galas, fire in my belly, HIV/AIDS, Jonathan Katz, National Portrait Gallery

Updated below the jump.

I posted a couple weeks ago on David Wojnarowicz's "A Fire in my Belly," the film that was cut from the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery because Bill Donohue of the Catholic League threw a tantrum. As is always the case with censored art, the focus should be on the art and not the politics, so I put up what I thought was "A Fire in my Belly" before the jump on that post. It turns out it was an edit presented alongside music that wasn't originally in the film as it's a silent film.

So here's what I'm (more) sure is the work, posted on YouTube by an art gallery. Take 13 minutes to watch it and it isn't boring to give it a click:

A few words on the editing after the jump.

First and foremost, after watching this video my original interpretation of the piece is null and stupid. So there's that.

Why was the NPG showing an edit/mash-up in the first place? The real film wouldn't take up more space and since the creator is dead it's hard to get his opinion on whether/how to cut it down. As Ryan Conrad commented on the first post, "Censorship of this show began long before the exhibition opened."

From my understanding of what was in the film this controversy is especially silly since there's no way to know if the material that upset people would have made the final cut in the first place as the Fales Library at New York University says the material was found on another reel in Wojnarowicz's possession. If the problem was that material, then perhaps they should have considered just showing the film as it was left by the artist instead of just dumping the work altogether.

My guess on why they edited it the way that they did was to make it a) shorter since there's no little theater in that part of the NPG as there often is in modern art galleries for film, so they believed people wouldn't stand for 13 minutes in front of it; and b) gayer, since those 13 minutes are open to much more interpretation and a lot less explicitly about sexuality than the edit/mash-up. The Diamanda Galas music and words, well, who knows why that was put in there. But Galas believes the two works shouldn't be presented together:

There is news from the fales library that says the original film does not have my composition in it; if this is true, that who sent both of our works in composition to the SMITHSONIAN, and why was my work THIS IS THE LAW OF THE PLAGUE not credited?

If this is true, then the work should be played without sound. It is of great confusion for me who was asked to write this paper to support the antagonism towards our work.


It's true that presenting the two works together changes the interpretation of both of them. That is, my original interpretation was based on the edit/mash-up and now seems stupid.

A long-time Bilerico reader sent in a few links because he also had issues with the edit/mash-up, including this link to co-curator Jonathan Katz who was mad about the work being pulled from the NPG:

I curated, with David C. Ward of the National Portrait Gallery, the groundbreaking exhibition Hide/Seek. Sadly, I was not consulted when the Smithsonian elected to censor a work by David Wojnarowicz, and then redoubled that insult by referring to "AIDS victims" in their statement--employing the very victimizing locution Wojnarowicz fought with his dying breath to oppose.

That Bilerico reader also sent in an excerpt from In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz, in which Wojnarowicz calls the ACT-UP slogan "AIDS is not about death. It is about people living with AIDS" bullshit.

Update: Richard in the comments links this article from Patricia Silva:

The user-generated video collage featured Diamanda Galas' This is the Law of the Plague, from Galas' controversial Plague Mass, a requiem for those dead and dying of AIDS, performed live at Saint John the Divine cathedral in New York City in 1991. Plague Mass was also attacked by the Catholic Church in the 1990s, because Galas used biblical texts to criticize and condemn the Roman Catholic Church's indifference to AIDS. So, what Donohue termed "hate speech" is actually Gala's text on Catholic indifference paired with Biblical passages showing the hypocritical context of such indifference. Galas had her own battle with censorship over this work, and won. Despite what some articles are reporting, Galas and Wojnarowicz never met, never collaborated. A friend of Wojnarowicz, Amy Scholder, confirms the two artists spoke a few times by telephone and admired each other's work, but that's it. Galas' music was never a part of any edit of Fire In My Belly by Wojnarowicz, a fact easily proved by Wojnarowicz's extensive notes and sketches for the work. Fire In My Belly is an unfinished work. A work in progress, edited for display.

Did you know the average time a viewer will spend with a moving picture is 37 seconds? To not push impatient audiences away, Fire In My Belly was edited. Every image in the 7 minute work in progress by Wojnarowicz was included in the 4 minute edit at Hide/Seek. Every image was included in sequence but truncated (cycles of repetition were omitted) and audio was added. Jonathan D. Katz highlighted the difficulty of showing a short silent film in contemporary museum settings. "To museum directors, moving images without sound look like broken kiosks." In order to display this work with audio, Jonathan D. Katz and co-curator David C. Ward obtained an audio recording from the Wojnarowicz papers at NYU's Fales Library and Special Collections. The audio piece was from an ACT-UP demonstration in June of 1989.

That clears up a lot. There were several edits, including the full 13 minutes work-in-progress, a 7-minute silent edit that was probably done by Wojnarowicz himself, a 4-minute edit with audio of an ACT-UP protest done by the NPG, and another 4-minute edit done by a YouTuber with Galas's music, who just ended up confusing more people than a YouTuber could hope for.

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Most of the imagery in the 4-minute video with the Diamanda Galas vocals you originally posted comes from the 7-minute "excerpt" video found on another reel.

Since the original 13-minute video was labelled "a film in progress" by the artist, and the 7 minutes of extra footage on the other reel are considered to be an excerpt from that and not a standalone piece, I think it's probable that David Wojarnowicz either never finished "A Fire in My Belly" or the finished version was lost somewhere.

The 7-minute reel is a lot easier to cut down to a watchable time (even if it remained silent) for placement in a gallery, though, so if they had used that and added it was from an excerpt of the artist's work in progress that would have at least made some sense. I've also heard the argument that the 7-minute "excerpt" seems more purposeful and complete, so you could make the case it better represented the artist's intention when making "A Fire In My Belly."

I've looked, and I have no idea as to the origin of the 4-minute edit with the Diamanda Galas music, though.

No idea why the Smithsonian would want to add its own audio (that being of the ACT UP demonstration in which you can supposedly hear David Wojnarowicz's voice).

Much ado about nothing. It was a way for Republicans to use gays as a whipping post again since they were losing the DADT battle.

There is a secondary issue that is causing confusion. This includes two pieces of important but entirely false information that has been circulating since the censorship began.

#1 The video posted on Youtube (from 2007) is not the version pulled from the gallery. It is a posthumous re-mix and the soundtrack is not original.

#2 Galas and Wojnarowicz, though they may have admired each others work, never met, never collaborated and were not friends.

Refer to these articles, please:

For authorized, original versions of the film, see the P.P.O.W. Gallery on Vimeo.