Museum Director Marcelle Giving a Press Preview

Museum to host discussion on controversial “A Fire in My Belly” featuring Jonathan D. Katz

Posted on May 16th, 2011

Museum to host discussion on controversial “A Fire in My Belly” featuring Jonathan D. Katz
Gay rights groups call ‘foul’ at Smithsonian decision to censor exhibition

Milwaukee, Wis. – The Milwaukee Art Museum will host a discussion about the controversy surrounding the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture on Thursday, May 26, at 7:30 p.m. in Lubar Auditorium. The discussion will focus on the removal of “A Fire in My Belly,” a video by artist David Wojnarowicz and will feature Jonathan D. Katz, the co-curator of the exhibition and Chair of the Visual Studies Doctoral Program at SUNY Buffalo. The event is free with Museum admission and open to the public.

In October 2010, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC opened Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture. Spanning the turn of the twentieth century through the emergence of the modern gay liberation movement in 1969 to the present, including the tragedies of the AIDS epidemic, the exhibition explores the influence of gay and lesbian artists in creating American modernism.

The exhibition, which has been praised for its groundbreaking scholarship, was open for two months when it became the focus of a heated controversy. A video in the exhibition entitled “A Fire in My Belly” by artist David Wojnarowicz was removed after pressure from the Catholic League and various members of Congress objected to a brief scene of ants crawling on a crucifix, which was criticized as being Christian “hate speech.”

Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough said that he ordered the video pulled because it was distracting from the rest of the exhibition. Critics of the removal countered that it was an act of censorship and was instigated due to the subject matter of the exhibition and the inappropriate pressure from Congress, who must approve funds for the Smithsonian.

“The imagery is part of a surrealistic video collage filmed in Mexico expressing the suffering, marginalization and physical decay of those who were afflicted with AIDS. A moving, personal expression by Wojnarowicz, who was dying of AIDS at the time, the video also shows challenging and disturbing images of a meat packing plant, objects on fire and the artist undressing himself,” said Laurie Winters, director of exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum. “In keeping with its mission of promoting the arts and examining their impact on society, the Milwaukee Art Museum is pleased to host a discussion on the removal of the video from the exhibition as a way to further dialogue on the subject and promote education on current issues in contemporary art.”

The program is sponsored by the Cream City Foundation’s Joseph R. Pabst LGBT Infrastructure Fund with support from the Fine Arts Society of the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The Milwaukee Art Museum’s far-reaching holdings include more than 25,000 works spanning antiquity to the present day. With a history dating back to 1888, the Museum houses a collection with strengths in 19th- and 20th-century American and European art, contemporary art, American decorative arts, and folk and self-taught art. The Museum includes the Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion, named by Time magazine as “Best Design of 2001.” For more information, please visit