The Catholic League is wrong about “A Fire in My Belly,” the work of video art by David Wojnarowicz that was removed from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Rather than mocking Christianity, as the Catholic League charged — thus leading to the piece’s removal — “A Fire in My Belly” is an attempt to equate the suffering of an AIDS victim to the suffering of Christ. On top of that, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” — the exhibit that “A Fire in My Belly” is a part of — is a very powerful exhibit which I encourage people to see.
“A Fire in My Belly” shows a crucifix being covered by ants. To me — a conservative Catholic and supporter of Bill Donahue and the Catholic League — it made perfect sense. Christ took on our sins, which meant enduring the terrible humiliation that can come with suffering. This doesn’t mean one needs to resort to blasphemy or scatology, as (yawn) avant-garde artists have done in the past; but it also means that showing Christ with sores, or bruises, or even bugs on him can be an expression of faith and solidarity. If David Wojnarowicz was identifying a friend’s suffering with the suffering of Christ, he was just doing what Christians are called to do. Of course, liberals love to identify their suffering with Christ while ignoring the Lord’s call to conversion, of rejecting sin and becoming a new man. And gay art can particularly suffer from watch-me-suffer kitsch and bombast — “Angels in America,” etc.
Walking through “Hide/Seek,” I was struck over and over by the same thought: why was this art, some of which is brilliant, ghettoized in a gay exhibit? Romaine Brooks’ “Self-Portrait,” “Unfinished Painting” by Keith Haring, even some of the less ridiculous works by Andy Warhol, all belong in art galleries as works of art, period. Why make it a gay thing? Alas, for the answer to that we must turn once again to the contagion of political correctness. Part of the point of “Hide/Seek” is to valorize homosexuals, to grant them a special virtue as victims and thereby give their art a kind of talismanic power that makes the artist and viewer virtuous. I like Keith Haring and feel bad about AIDS (and I hate Sarah Palin), therefore I am good.
But this thinking is patronizing. It’s cheap virtue as opposed to the real thing. It also does a disservice to the artists. By turning viewing into a political act, it makes the viewer reluctant to do what he would in any other gallery: say that a work is vulgar, trashy, or just plain sucks. It also makes art snobs criticize art for political reasons. Blake Gopnik, the art critic for the Washington Post, condemned the censorship of “A Fire in My Belly,” but in doing so he blasted Norman Rockwell, who also has an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. Gopnik “can’t stand the view of America” that Rockwell represents. Notice how the ideologue Gopnik has nothing to say about Rockwell’s technique; for him, it’s all about politics. For the record, I’m a conservative and I find Rockwell’s art contrived and corny. The “Hide/Seek stuff was much more compelling.
By far the most offensive and worthless work in “Hide/Seek” is a gigantic photograph, taking up an entire gallery wall, of the corpse of a man who had died of AIDS. It is repellent and without artistic merit, and I’m not going to mention the artist’s name because I don’t know it and don’t care. The dead man is on a bed and his lover has surrounded him “with some of his favorite things.” It’s AIDS bathos meets the Crypt Keeper. Worse, it’s a denial of the sting, the terrible sadness, of death.
But directly across from this abomination is my favorite work from “Hide/Seek.” “Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi” is a photograph by Nan Goldin. It’s a picture of two transvestites in a cab in New York City. They are not playing to the camera, not looking ironic, not playing divas — and they are not suffering, either. Misty and Jimmy look a little irritated, a little tired after being up all night, but also beautiful. More, they look dignified. I’m a conservative Irish-Catholic Republican, and looking at the photograph I didn’t see a couple queers, or Democrats, or freaks. I saw a couple human beings. Their faces take up most of the frame, and they hold themselves with quiet confidence. The dignity that God gave them — and all of us — is evident. Yet also there is fatigue, part of the cost of being human. It’s a great picture that would be at home at any art gallery in the world. It can be seen here.
Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author of several books, including Damn Senators and God and Man at Georgetown Prep. His articles and essays have appeared in various publications.