Banned Art

Winter                                                             Waning Moon of the Winter Solstice

I have now seen “A Fire in My Belly.”

What did I think of it?  Much of the movie disturbed me:  scenes of lucha masked wrestlers throwing each other to the mat, a grainy clip of bull fighting, occasional interpositions of an Aztec priest lifting the heart out of a sacrificial victim, gamecocks fighting to the death, legless beggars walking a city street and panhandling in traffic, a man’s mouth being sewn closed, young boys breathing fire on Mexican city streets to make a few coins.  Frankly, the ants crawling across the crucifix, I didn’t see them biting the ivory figure but maybe the Catholic League paid closer attention, didn’t have near the shock value I anticipated from the news releases and very little compared to the much more violent or voyeuristic images I’ve already mentioned.

I’ve added some material below from the Catholic League and the Walker.  The Catholic League’s argument is a farce from a logical perspective.  It suggests, for example, that because the first amendment prohibits the state’s establishment of religion that it should not be able to fund things that “bash” another.   Whether or not this is bashing may lie in the eye of the beholder, but the argument that prohibiting establishment somehow contains a negative constraint against critiquing religion just doesn’t follow.  At all.

As a work, I found “A Fire In My  Belly” obscure as to meaning and intent, though with some powerful images that display the underlying violence of Mexican culture.  Just why he chose the savagery of Mexican cockfighting, wrestling, bull-fighting and human sacrifice, I don’t know, but linking it to the kind of brutality that could crucify a god on earth seems like a powerful pro-religious statement.

Images of Coatlicue, She of the Serpent Skirt, show up frequently in the film and may provide an interpretive key.  Among other things, she is the birth giver from whom all life comes and to whom all life must return in the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. An art historian familiar with this sculpture from the Mueso de Antropologica in Mexico city, says:  “In effect she symbolizes the earth, but also the sun, moon, spring, rain, light, life , death, the necessity of human sacrifice, humanity, the gods, the heavens, and the supreme creator:  the dual principle.”  (material quoted from The Flayed God, pp 220-223)

Thus, her presence signals the deeper mythic significance of the individual images from Mexican culture and places the crucifix, certainly bound up in the eternal cycle of death and rebirth, in an artistic context.

This is not an easy piece, either viscerally or art historically, and may be as much a cry of pain as anything else.  The more I think about it, the more powerful it becomes.  So there, Catholic League.

Here’s a brief description from the Walker’s website linked to here.

“In the original 13-minute silent film, Wojnarowicz juxtaposes black and white footage from the streets of Mexico including wrestlers in masks, legless beggars, a cockfight, and police officers on their beat with iconic images such as Day of the Dead votives, sugar skulls, tarot cards, and puppet skeletons. Integrated into the film are images from the making of Wojnarowicz’s Ant Series, a body of photographic work that portrays ants on a crucifix, Mexican coins, and Day of the Dead votive candles. Many of these images in the film are set in Mexican cemeteries which are usually lavishly adorned, particularly around Day of the Dead celebrations when people leave food for their deceased loved ones. While the images of the ants were staged by Wojnarowicz, similar images may have also easily been found in this setting, especially on the day after a Day of the Dead night vigil when religious icons fall to the ground and left over food offerings attract bugs to the site.”

Ostensibly the Smithsonian took the piece off exhibit after the Catholic League complained about the images of ants crawling over a crucifix.  There were, interspersed with them, also short scenes of a man removing his clothing, then masturbating.  My hunch is the juxtaposition had something to do with the Catholic League’s fire in the belly.  Here’s a 1998 quote from their website:

“The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that there is no constitutional prohibition against Congress setting decency standards for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Catholic League president William Donohue was delighted with the decision:

“It was due to the elitism and the moral depravity of the artistic community that this issue was raised in the first place.””

Here, too, is what can only be described as a gloating and condescending response to the Smithsonian’s decision from the same website:


The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has pulled the video, “A Fire in My Belly,” that the Catholic League objected to earlier today; it shows large ants eating away at Jesus on a crucifix. Commenting on this development is Catholic League president Bill Donohue:

Our immediate concerns have been relieved, though it is a sad commentary on the judgment exercised by Smithsonian officials that it took a pressure group like the Catholic League to send them a wake-up call. Quite frankly, had common decency prevailed from the beginning, they would never have insulted Christians with this vile display.

The larger issue is still on the table: why should the federal government underwrite an institution that uses money to bash Christians, when it is unconstitutional for the federal government to underwrite the promotion of it? That is why the letter I sent today to the members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees stands—they need to reconsider the propriety of funding the Smithsonian Institution.

One more thing. To say that it was the artist’s intention to show the suffering of AIDS victims—and not to offend Christians—is unpersuasive. Let them next invite an artist to put their bugs on an image of Muhammad and then explain to Muslims that they never meant to offend them.

Hmmm…  This last paragraph especially.  If you don’t watch out, Catholics will start acting like Al Qaeda and the Taliban?  That’s an argument?