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A Film That Sparked National Controversy Screens At MCASD

The Smithsonian Institution and the National Portrait Gallery may not want to exhibit "A Fire in My Belly," a film by artist David Wojnarowicz, but the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego certainly does. Now San Diegans can see what all the fuss is about.

At the beginning of December, curators at the National Portrait Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian, removed a 4-minute version of Wojnarowicz's "A Fire In My Belly" from an exhibit exploring gay and lesbian portraiture.

It's been widely reported that the Smithsonian removed the video under pressure from Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, along with Speaker of the House John Boehner, who were said to be offended by "anti-Christian" imagery in the work.

The art world cried outrage, sparking a nationwide conversation about censorship in the arts, similar to the NEA debates of the 1990s. The Warhol Foundation (a co-presenter of the exhibit) withdrew its funding to the Smithsonian until the film was reinstated. Protests were held. A board member resigned. Editorials and blog posts were written.

The offending footage is 11 seconds long, featuring ants crawling over a crucified Jesus. This scene is part of a (originally) 20-minute film created by Wojnarowicz in 1986 to express his anger and grief over the AIDS epidemic. Wojnarowicz died of AIDS complications in 1992.

MCASD is one of dozens of arts organizations, museums, and universities protesting the removal of the video by screening the work in its entirety (it is split into two films, one 13-minute version, and one 7-minute version) at their institutions.

Hugh Davies, the David C. Copley Director and CEO of MCASD, issued this statement via email:

Freedom of expression is one of our most dearly held ideals and a cornerstone of American culture and democracy. To see this freedom compromised because of the complaints of one constituency is a bad harbinger for artistic expression in this country. As a cultural institution serving the public, it is our role and responsibility to protect artistic freedom by presenting work and allowing the viewer to reach his or her own conclusions.

"A Fire in My Belly" was created from footage Wojnarowicz shot during a trip to Mexico in the 1980s, including images shot in Juarez, Mexico, a city that continues to be plagued by violence. And violence is a main theme in this work, which can make for a troubling and complex viewing experience. But Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik writes: “The irony is that the video is merely a tepid variation on the centuries-old tradition of artists using images of Christ, many of them “hideously grisly,” to speak of mankind’s suffering."

I, for one, am grateful to be able to view this work here in San Diego.

But I want to know what you think: Have you seen "A Fire in My Belly?" Did you find it offensive? What do you think of the Smithsonian's decision to remove the film from their exhibit?

David Wojnarowicz's "A Fire in My Belly" is currently on view through February 13th at the museum's downtown location at 1001 Kettner Blvd.

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