Love, Blood & Art

by on Dec.02, 2010

You’ve probably already heard about the Smithsonian pulling down David Wojnarowicz’s “Fire in My Belly” off its walls in light of complaints by the Catholic League.  On World AIDS Day, no less.  There are obvious, if pretty sensationalist, reasons for the Catholic League to find the use of religious imagery in “Fire in My Belly” offensive (too Latin American, “garish,” “unsettling”).  But I want to point out that the video is particularly threatening because it defies the ghettoization of HIV/AIDS as a gay/black/African problem.*  It’s dangerous, “unclean” (as Diamanda Galas sings in the soundtrack), because it smears suffering everywhere—on stitched bread, flailing cockroaches, a burning globe.  Yet, there is love in this rupturing of the self.  A love Bill Donohue sorely lacks.  The artist even takes his clothes off for you.  Invites you into his bed.  It’s that body of the outlaw William Haver discusses in his writing about Wojnarowicz’s memoir Close to the Knives:

“…it is nevertheless the case that it is with ‘a guy like this’ that an absolute vulnerability, a trust, a loving–albeit ‘illusory’–becomes possible; there, in the threat of violence to which one makes oneself vulnerable, it is possible to lose oneself.”

*My hope is that the attention surrounding this will eclipse the issue of arts censorship and lead to conversation about Wojnarowicz’s referents.  We need to talk more in the US about the rise in HIV infections among high-risk groups, the increasing acceptance of unsafe practices, the obscene lack of proper sex education, etc.

9 comments for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    Here’s another example of expenditure vs “values”. The exhibit was pulled specifically because Boehner threatened (and in fact still threatens) to cut the funding of the Smithsonian over this. Per the Washington Post:

    “Boehner’s spokesman, Kevin Smith, said in a statement that the congressman was monitoring the episode. “American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy,” Smith said. “While the amount of money involved may be small, it’s symbolic of the arrogance Washington routinely applies to thousands of spending decisions involving Americans’ hard-earned money.”

    This is such a bizarre and yet perversely cliched statement, wrapped as it is in boot-in-the-face reproductive futurism (the family is always right) and nationalism (the American family is righter than right) and then, in the next breath, setting ‘hard-earned money’ against the implicitly unearned-ness, the gratuitousness, the luxuriousness of art. Wojnarowicz own expenditure and the artwork’s ‘lavishness’– unto death– the wound-media inherent in the ‘vulnerability’ you mention (vulnera–Latin for wound)subscribes to a whole different economic model– one of expenditure rather than wellness and equanimity and hard-earned money and ‘balanced books’. And that’s an expenditure embodied by Christ himself, his continuously opened wombs (I mean wounds!), his contagious stigma/stigmata!

  2. Johannes

    This is so infuriating. Lets find a dead gay guy to get our moronic base worked up. He’s attacking Christmas! He’s attacking the American Children! He’s attacking the American Family and Taxpayers (cause lord knows only the American Family pays taxes)!


  3. Robb

    Culture War II: first battle.

    The part I find really really really troubling and interesting is that the curators remove the video saying that they wanted to be able to focus on the exhibit’s “strengths.”

    And you’re right, Lucas: the best attention that could follow from this might be to point to the ways that the removal of this video from the exhibit mirrors the scant and fading attention to an actual flourishing HIV epidemic in the District, and the continued spread of HIV due to poor public awareness (something that couldn’t be said as easily during the mid-90s culture war). Just as NE or SE DC is invisible to public consciousness in other ways, as well:

    This is the visibility part of canonicity, which I was mentioning in another post, Johannes. You remove the video, you don’t have to be responsible to the video, you aren’t confronted with the demand of care or attention.

  4. Lucas


    I too wonder what the curators meant by “strengths.” I suppose this has something to do with the garishness of DW’s piece, his confrontational aesthetic, which is perhaps not en vogue or in line with the rest of the exhibit?

    You know, I almost hope for a culture war II, something that fundamentally implicates the art world in political struggle.

    It’s weird, I’ve been kind of obsessed with DW since this summer (I was fascinated but too disturbed when I discovered him at 19). I’ve been reading his books voraciously and trying to fit him into my writing. Now I know why.


  5. A Fire in My Belly: The Wound Media of David Wojnarowicz - Montevidayo

    […] Lucas’s discussion of David Wojnarowicz’s “Fire in My Belly” brings our attention to a key term: vulnerability. What does this term mean? It derives from the Latin word vulnera, wound. I’ve been thinking lately about how wounds are a type of media—they are a spectacle on the body, they mark a site of violence (they are a memorial site?), they can present a surface or image of uncertain depth and mark both a site of entry and of exit. They shed issues of blood, pus, water (if you’re Jesus). Sacred wounds represent the mediumicity of the wound par excellence– the fluid that flows from Jesus wounds can make its own images (as when Veronica wiped his face and his image was transferred to her cloth) and the stigmata itself is constantly remarking itself on the skin surface of saints, showing them to have been pierced by the Holy Spirit, showing them to have a surfeit of grace which leaks from the wounds; transferred to cloth, this fluid from saint’s wounds creates holy icons. Moreover, the vulnerability of wound-media has both a micro and macrocosmic effect; that is, a hyperbolic, excessive effect; when a stigmata appears there is a piercing of the membrane separating earth and heaven. […]

  6. diamanda galas

    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.


  7. Lucas


    I’m confused, too, as I’ve only seen the clip with your music. Why wouldn’t such a magnificent and noble accompaniment be credited?

    Thank you for defending Wojnarowicz with the ferocious love he put into his own art. Thank you for having always spoken out about AIDS.


  8. CraigNYU

    This article and others are incorrectly showing an unauthorized soundtrack version from Youtube. Galas and Wojnarowicz never met, nor did they collaborate. The Youtube video posted does not represent David’s original work. The Diamanda Galas soundtracked version is not authorized by the Wojnarowicz estate or the Fales Library. The Galas version was not the version removed from the gallery.

    If you would like to show David’s original film you may link to any of the versions on the P.P.O.W. gallery Vimeo channel-

    Refer to Fales Library:

  9. Omar Little as the God of War - Montevidayo

    […] body, which literalizes the outlaw figure I’ve previously analyzed in Joel Burns and David Wojnarowicz, also reframes the monstrosity Jasbir Puar identifies (via Achille Mbembe) in the suicide […]