ART + CENSORSHIP : A Response to the Wojnarowicz Controversy

(L-R) Al Stavitsky, Phaedra Livingstone, Ying Tan, John Frohnmayer. Showing behind the panel: David Wojnarowicz's film 'A Fire in My Belly.' The image shows Christ on the cross with ants crawling over his body and face.

ART + CENSORSHIP | A Response to the Wojnarowicz Controversy

Wednesday January 26, 2011 | 6:00pm-8:00pm | White Stag Event Room | University of Oregon | Portland

Panel Discussion and Film Screening

On Wednesday, January 26, 2011 a panel of experts were invited to gather and discuss cultural censorship in America and the consequent ramifications for the arts, journalism, news reporting, equity and diversity in museums, and constitutional rights.  The panel was invited to convene and address the on-going controversy surrounding the recent Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery exhibit, “Hide/Seek:  Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” (October 30, 2011 – February 13, 2011 at the NPG). The exhibit is “the first major museum exhibition to address sexual differences in the making of modern American portraiture.”  On November 20, 2010 the museum pulled artist David Wojnarowicz’s video entitled “A Fire in My Belly” from the exhibition after it had attracted conservative and religious commentary.  The Smithsonian’s removal of  ”A Fire in My Belly” as an act of censorship of publicly funded art has rarely been seen since the 1990s Culture Wars.

In this free and open to the public event,  the University of Oregon in Portland joined the national discussion by screening “A Fire in My Belly” on the evening of January 26.  The video was followed by a panel discussion on cultural censorship in America and the potential effects.

Panelists at the University of Oregon | Portland included:

John Frohnmayer, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts and current vice chair of Oregon Humanities of Oregon.

Phaedra Livingstone, Assistant Professor, Museum Studies, Arts and Administration Program, University of Oregon.

Al Stavitsky, Director, George S. Turnbull Portland Center and Professor and Senior Associate Dean, School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon.

Ying Tan, Associate Professor, Department of Art and Digital Arts Program, University of Oregon.

Moderator:  Kate Wagle, Director, School of Architecture and Allied Arts, University of Oregon | Portland.

While the film prompted many national discussions around the issues of gay rights, constitutional rights, art censorship and religious expression, among others, the panel at the University of Oregon | Portland gathered with the intent to focus on political, constitutional, and museum curatorial issues and as these subjects directly related to the professional experience and expertise of our assembled panel.

Still from David Wojnarowicz's 'A Fire in My Belly.'

The following are brief summaries and quotes taken from the comments made by each panelist.  A full podcast is available of this presentation.  Please contact the A+AA | Portland to obtain the podcast.

After a welcome and brief introduction from Kate Wagle, John Frohnmayer began the discussion with the observation that “a conservative can be defined as a person too chicken to fight and too lazy to run.”  Recalling the First Amendment, Frohnmayer recited:  ”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  He continued remarking that “political pressures…can be intense and nearly impossible to withstand.”  While chair of the NEA, Frohnmayer related the “colossal mistake” he made when a controversial show of David Wojnarowicz’s was exhibited in a prominent New York gallery that was to receive funding from the NEA.  ”I suspended the [NEA] grant before I went to see the show…I should have gone to see the show.”  As it was, the show ended up making the front page of the New York Times due to the suspension of the funding.  Frohnmayer recommended a series of steps to work with controversial exhibits that include the following:

  • “Doing nothing is a very clever thing to do and say…just let it go.”
  • “There are prophylactic measures one can take from talking to the gendarmes, the trustees, the donors, the people who are important to the organization; engage in every opportunity to talk and to have a dialogue….always use this as an opportunity to talk.”
  • “Make a distinction between the artist message and the sponsor who provides the funding…There is a critical distinction here, the ideas belong to the artist and a separation or distinction needs to be made.”

Frohnmayer pointed out that sometimes one might hope there is a controversy as this brings attention and dialogue to an exhibit that might not exist otherwise.  Noting that usually it is “the idea in [the mind] that bothers” those who object to what they deem offensive or inappropriate, Frohnmayer remarked that, nonetheless,  ”It is a great fundraiser if you are in politics [to show] that you are getting after the blasphemous, after the ‘anti-christ’…but this is not an easy issue.”  He continued that in fact, this is not a negotiable issue:  either the First Amendment exists or it does not and that is the crux of the matter.  ”Nothing says we have to have a Public Broadcasting network, or a National Endowment for the Arts, but if government has those, they have to be governed by the First Amendment.  It is an issue of political courage and foolhardiness as self-censorship [ensues] because [these organizations] are afraid of being censored.”  Frohnmayer went on to remark that when organizations feel the need for self-censorship to avoid controversy, this thwarts the main intent of such organizations that exist primarily to exhibit, show, and provide airtime to “what the public market will not fund.”  The demand for a balance between the politically bland and non-offensive and the potentially offensive, controversial becomes a “code word for ‘let’s get in on one side whether it is right, wrong or indifferent.’”  Addressing how the American press covers controversial exhibits, Frohnmayer noticed the role of the press has shifted from a previously more mainstream coverage that would “play it up the middle” to a distinct slant towards the political right side of the spectrum—-Frohnmayer agreed that the Wojnarowicz controversy was largely fanned by the press who effectively slanted the situation from the onset to the conservative side making the situation challenging to respond to.

Professor Ying Tan carried the discussion next by citing her experience as a child growing up in the China colored by the Cultural Revolution.  Her experience as a youth during her elementary school through college years provided her with firsthand exposure to the “extreme, controlled political environment” of China effectively shaping her “way of dealing, perceiving and responding” and became “a driving force for [her] to seek more freedom.”  In 1990 she came to the United States and she recalls that it was and is very hard for her to compare the US to China.  Tan comments that her initial reaction to the controversy surrounding the Wojnarowicz film was one where she “did not want to see Cultural Revolution-like censorship happening here [in the United States].”  She noted that it seems there are more and more examples of censorship-like actions being taken on a broader level (she recalled the recent whitewashing and removal of Blu’s mural in Los Angeles by MOCA); and she commented “it is happening quite a lot now even though I am living here I am seeing things that alarm me.”  Tan continued adding that she sees controversial shows and exhibits as opportunities for dialogue further noting that with Wojnarowicz’s piece “only one side of the story unfolded” as no debate was engaged leading to misunderstandings as to the meaning and intent of the work.

Professor Tan spoke with great feeling and emotion of her youth in China.  Noting the content of Wojnarowicz’s film and his struggle with AIDS, tragedy and the societal constraints the artist faced, Tan empathized with his struggle and with her newness to understanding the predicament of gay Americans who face political oppression.  As a young person in China, Tan says she “had no idea of homosexuality, gay, lesbian….When I was grown, I had no idea there was such a thing….I did not know it existed, I had never heard of it, in China it is hidden completely.”  Tan emphasized that in China during her young life, there was only “one view, one standard, and you conformed to that.”  Given her personal experience, the professor said she found “A Fire in My Belly” to be “very moving”;   describing the artist as “speaking to the pain and suffering so that others will relate to his story….[he] is very successful to speak  of this agony” Tan noted.

Still from David Wojnarowicz's 'A Fire in My Belly.'

Attempting to empathize with Wojnarowicz’s struggle and suffering, Tan said she confronted her own background and shifted “back to [her] own experience,” however, she also noted that this kind of experience “would not be allowed” in the China of her youth.  Tan described her path into landscape painting as a choice she embarked upon and as a genre that would allow her to illustrate the idealism of China and depict “only good.”  It was into this frame of reference that Tan, who had grown up knowing there was a distinct and unquestionable difference between what was allowed to be seen and talked about and what was not to be,  found in landscape painting a refuge whereby she could illustrate “new, good, beautiful and perfect.”  Knowing well that to paint a crooked branch or smallest part of her landscape with something less than ideal would be criticized as the artist “complaining”, Tan used her art “as a service for a political agenda” as did all Chinese artists none of whom were allowed to challenge the government nor the situation.

  • “People who criticize are not evil, they are judgmental, lack an understanding, lack an opportunity to have a dialogue.”
  • “In China, we were not allowed to have that conversation, not to have that dialogue– so much was misunderstood.”
  • “I am grateful to be able to work, to create, and to express.”
  • “I see Wojnarowicz’s film as ‘artistic truth’.  And we have to question, even in a landscape painting, what does a broken branch mean?  What is the ‘fact-based’ justification of the art?  The artist was angry about his AIDS and love…..there needs to be a dialogue:  put the crucifixion image in the larger context and ask ‘what does this mean’?”
  • “We need to be sensitive to the social and political context of each work.”
  • “There is a very different type of freedom in the US than in China and we need to respond to this.”
  • “Each place has a different political environment and how we handle this is important.”

Still from David Wojnarowicz's 'A Fire in My Belly.'

Professor Phaedra Livingstone has an academic background focused on museum planning, policy and practice.  For context, Livingstone offered that she has recently moved from Canada to the United States so she “[has] had a bird’s eye view of many of the art controversies in the US.”  Livingstone commented that she sees “censorship” as a “response to controversy” and that her interests lie in the museum as having a cultural role.  In recent art history, Livingstone recalled that there have been many projects that have been controversial and that this controversy begins when the exhibit opens.  However, she also noted that the “nature of controversy is changing.”  Historically, financial issues have led to cultural values which, in turn, leads back to financial issues.  Livingstone pointed out that keeping donors satisfied has become the key issue as this is where the funding comes from.

  • “Museums are still trusted sources of information and this responsibility is taken seriously.”
  • “You cannot predict what will be controversial and this must be taken on a case-by-case basis.”
  • “There is not just one type of controversy but all must be considered in context and with an interpretation unique to that situation.”
  • “I see a shift to self-censorship,” [however] in the case of Wojnarowicz’s film “this was externally imposed.”

Moderator Kate Wagle asked Livingstone to specifically address how a controversy such as the one surrounding Wojnarowicz’s film should be managed.  Professor Livingstone pointed out that there needs to be a distinction between the represented and the reference made by the work.  ”Abstract contemporary art is a hard sell,” she continued, “a lot of controversy is related to contemporary art such as are you looking at this as art or as a literal engagement?”

Livingstone also advocated for a dialogue to assess the controversy and as an effective means to counteract or address any misunderstandings that can then be turned around.  ”Controversy,” says Livingstone, “is an opportunity to retool and can be an opportunity to change.”

Still from David Wojnarowicz's 'A Fire in My Belly.'

Addressing the audience from a journalistic perspective, Al Stavitsky turned to the topic of the Public Broadcasting Service and the historically recent advent of mostly insipid programming, or as he said, “PBS is on the brink of irrelevance.”  Drawing a parallel between PBS as an institution of public culture and, therefore, subject to the same censorship situation as what has enveloped Wojnarowicz’s film exhibit, Stavitsky recalled the 1991 PBS distribution of the film by Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied.  In what is described as a personal and intimate video essay on urban, gay African American men in contemporary American society, Stavitsky pointed out that the filmmaker had received a grant from the NEA to produce this film, in addition, the program that would air it as part of a documentary series, POV (Point of View) had also contemporaneously received a grant from the NEA.  The film was revered by critics who offered high praise, however despite this journalistic media lauding of the film, the production came under fire from conservative thinktanks who vehemently ranted against it;  Jesse Helms infamously called it Tongues United and simultaneously attacked the film, the NEA and PBS for promoting what he considered unacceptable sexual and societal behaviors.

Stavitsky continued, the conservative prevailing thought remained:  the producer has no right to produce his film at public expense.  While almost 300 PBS stations broadcast the POV show weekly, over 100 did not show this episode of Tongues Untied or ran it at much later time slots.  This sort of self-censorship is widely reported in the press, said Stavitsky.  A “multicultural politically polarized world” presents itself to us, observed Stavitsky,  and it is a situation where the “justification of public subsidy” has come under scrutiny.  Stavitsky noted that the question becomes how “can we justify tax-based support?”  and simultaneously noted that “challenging fare [on PBS, for example] will cause offense” –watching Wojnarowicz’s film and discussing the controversy that ensued became, for Stavitsky, a “deju vu”.

Journalistic truth used to be “objectivity” explained Stavitsky.  Journalism was to be nothing of your personal experiences but only a strict recounting, a fair and balanced campaign of facts.  ”We tend to talk about journalism as fact-based reporting” said Stavitsky, as relevant facts about a specific story that can allow one to draw a conclusion based on this unbiased truth.  There has been a shift in journalism, noted Stavitsky, whereby now one can be a bit interpretative or analytical if one brings facts from previous events, situations, or a background.  This objectivity was stenography:  one side and the other side….however, commented Stavitsky, this seems to now be an approach of the past.

  • “Being provocative and challenging to your audience makes market sense.”
  • “Public radio is thriving.”  Public radio is seen as creative, less offensive, and more able to take risks.
  • “[PBS] programming is not distinctive.”
  • “Economic pressures are very real and only sort of compound the problem.”
  • “Economic pressures are seen as a kind of censorship.”
  • “Commercially driven media has to be very conscious of not offending their audiences.  [There is a great] influence on programming from the sponsors.”
  • “The fundamental change has gone from a journalism of verification to a journalism of assertion.”
  • “Anyone can assert, write their blog, it may be fact-based or not.  We see ourselves involved in media literacy and wealth….but [it is] how to make sense of it as you navigate this world.”

post :: sabina

Thank you to the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York, for making the video available for screening.

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