Fired Up: The Wojnarowicz Controversy Lives On

When the decision-makers at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery decided to drop David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video “A Fire in My Belly” from their exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, they did it hoping to end the controversy. To the credit of the American art community, that act ignited a much larger conflagration. Opponents of the censorship have responded with full force—moral, aesthetic, and financial. Instead of banishing Wojnarowicz’s video to obscurity, conservatives calling for its removal have instead given the late artist a second life and the widespread media attention that comes equally from fame or infamy. Removing “A Fire in My Belly” has fired up those dedicated to the arts and, perhaps, awakened them to the seriousness of the latest battle in the American culture wars.


As I discussed here earlier, several conservative commentators looking to stir up the annual farce of the secular “War on Christmas” first misrepresented Hide/Seek as a “Christmas” exhibition, even though it opened on October 30th, and then misrepresented the exhibition as being funded by tax dollars rather than private funds. When the financing source was corrected, the same opponents objected on the grounds that the gallery itself operated using “their” tax dollars, thus giving them the right to object. Fortunately, supporters of Hide/Seek and the work of artists such as Wojnarowicz (shown above) want “their” tax dollars to speak as loudly as those of The Catholic League and friends.

When the show’s two curators, Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward, appeared at The New York Public Library, their previously scheduled presentation soon became an extension of the debate over the censorship. The National Portrait Gallery’s Director, Martin Sullivan, joined the fray from his seat in the audience. “Was it a great decision? Absolutely not,” Sullivan said in defense of the removal. “Is it one that we’re happy about? No.” But, claiming a need to look at the larger financial picture and not just this single exhibition and artwork, Sullivan concluded his defense by saying, “Sometimes you don’t get what you want entirely.” Ward decried the decision as “abhorrent” and wished there had been at least “a fighting retreat” by the National Portrait Gallery instead of the hasty, unconditional surrender.

That quick surrender caught the eye of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, one of the private foundations that funded Hide/Seek. The Warhol Foundation now will think twice about funding exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery or any Smithsonian institution. Where the Warhol goes, hopefully other institutions will follow suit. If financial force in the form of tax dollars can influence events in one direction, perhaps private funds can influence events in a more positive way.

The specter of the upcoming Republican-controlled House of Representatives choking off federal funding of cultural institutions that don’t toe the line was hinted at during the Katz/Ward appearance. Sadly, the long-term culture wars waged by the Republican Party since the 1980s have now become overtly homophobic rather than coded. Homophobia, the last “acceptable” prejudice in polite American society, is the real reason for the ban on Wojnarowicz in particular and the Hide/Seek exhibition in general.

Fortunately, other art museums have joined in the fight by showing “Fire in the Belly” when the National Portrait Gallery won’t. “We chose to show it as a way of not letting it become just a news story, a scandal,’’ explains Boston ICA chief curator Helen Molesworth yesterday. “We want to reclaim it as art, and to allow for the possibility of having an experience with it in a public museum.’’ (A great irony of the conservative ban is the wider recognition this controversy has given Wojnarowicz posthumously.) I can appreciate how Molesworth and others are trying to defuse the political situation by returning to the aesthetic plane, by “reclaiming” the video as art. However, those who reject “Fire in the Belly” do not care about what is or isn’t art. They serve an agenda that rejects art based solely on the sexual orientation of the artist. The percentage of opponents who actually have seen the video is probably very small. They don’t need to see it; they’ve already decided (or had others decide for them). Their minds are closed, perhaps for good. This cultural battle will be won by reaching those who still believe in freedom, artistic and otherwise. They are the ones who need to see this video, or at least know why it was suppressed. Now is the time for defenders of freedom to get fired up, and to get more good people fired up to finally reject the last acceptable prejudice of homophobia once and for all.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.