An estimated 500 protesters walked a stretch of the Museum Mile in
Manhattan on Sunday to demand that the Smithsonian restore the David
Wojnarowicz video A Fire in My Belly to an exhibition on same-sex
desire in Washington, D.C.
The protesters, some wearing masks of the late artist, gathered outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue in the chilly afternoon air and walked north about 10 blocks along the periphery of Central Park to the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, an outpost of the Smithsonian in New York City. During their journey, the block-line line of demonstrators passed the Guggenheim, streams of holiday tourists and locals walking dogs as they chanted, “Put the video back!” and “Show us your morals!”
Organizers said the protest, the largest in years in the city to coalesce around an art exhibition, aimed to send a message from the heart of the art world. A protest took place in Washington, D.C. about two weeks ago, and countless others, including the Andy Warhol Foundation, op-ed columnists and bloggers, have decried the act of censorship.
“This is to send a very loud and clear message to the Smithsonian: Put the piece back now,” said Bill Dobbs of the direct action group Art+, which started to organize the protest about 10 days ago. “The yanking of the video sends a very chilling message, and it raises the larger issue of how cultural institutions deal with sexual minority people and culture.”
Art+ ("art positive") continues the work of the original group of the same name, an ACT UP offshoot forged in the incendiary culture wars of the 1980s and 90s. Back then, the group organized around issues including Republican-led attempts to defund the National Endowment for the Arts. Dobbs and co-organizer Hunter Reynolds knew Wojnarowicz, whose art sparked controversy in his own time before his death from AIDS in 1992.
“He was enormously sweet,” said Dobbs. “And he spoke with the clarity of a sledgehammer.”
Last month, under pressure from the Catholic League and some congressional Republicans, the Smithsonian removed the Wojnarowicz video, which deals with the suffering of HIV/AIDS, from "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," a widely hailed exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Critics objected to a 10-second scene in which ants crawl across a crucifix, calling it an instance of “hate speech” against Catholics.
The Sunday crowd, which contained many artists, sought to illustrate the hypocrisy of the charges during the hour-long peaceful protest, which concluded outside Cooper-Hewitt on 91st Street.
“I am a devoted follower of Jesus,” said Rick Shur, a self-described “esoteric Christian” also known as Rick X. “He has been kidnapped and monopolized by a group of people who believe they represent Jesus and we don’t.”