Thursday, December 2, 2010

"A Fire in My Belly" - Culture in Context

There is a story in the news this week that really has me thinking and has me troubled. It is not a new story, but it this is another chapter in an ongoing saga concerning: 1. What is art? 2. What cultural collections and programs should the federal government support? And most fundamentally 3. What is the role of a cultural institution?

The National Portrait Gallery recently removed the video "A Fire in My Belly" from their exhibit, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," after complaints by the Catholic League and members of Congress who claimed it was sacrileges. According to the Washington Post, they object to "Homoerotic images" and refer to the video that includes ants crawling over Jesus on a crucifix "hate speech." According to National Portrait Gallery Director Martin Sullivan,"A Fire in My Belly" is a video that depicts the suffering of AIDS victims.

After watching "A Fire in My Belly", I am struck by the emotion it captures. There is a lot to take in here and I will have to watch it a few times to interpret everything. I also do not want to re-write my art history thesis and bore you to death in the process, but these are the things that struck me most:
1. In addition to images of Jesus, the video also shows two halves of bread being sewn together. This imagery is reminiscent of that of Frida Kahlo, an accepted great Mexican artist who created multiple self-portraits of herself broken and stitched after an accident that left her in pain for most of her life. The inclusion of this can be taken to symbolize a feeling of being broken or un-whole.
2. The artist also includes images relating to the Mexican celebration "Day of the Dead," further tying him to the Kahlo school and exploring notions of dying. Death symbols appear over and over -- hollowed pale dead faces with empty eye sockets are startling and poignant. Images that make us think of pain include lots of blood as the artist struggles with what members of his community must endure in the present and what they may find in their future. He struggles with the body as a shell, showing cleaned carcasses of meat that juxtapose against the warm bodies, active suffering, and more disturbing images of death.
3. Bugs do not only appear crawling on crucified Jesus, but also on skulls and candles. A cockroach appears belly up later in the film. I remember that I have heard that this bug will survive even a nuclear war and will long outlive my species, which is shown going up in a fire-y ball of earth at the end of the video. To me the bugs symbolize the slow creeping of disease and helplessness.
4. We are reminded of the artist's sexuality, which was once blamed for this new "plague" and which he shows us through the image of a man pulling down his pants and masturbating. Again, the artist is providing a blunt look at his world. I am disturbed, but reminded that this is his point of view not mine. He challenges me to look and to feel his pain.
5. Music accompanies the video and it is deeply disturbing. The word "unclean" and quotes from the Bible are reiterated. I wonder if the artist is struggling with who he is and what is expected of him. I do not immediately jump to the conclusion that he is angry with those who condemn him, though this may be part of what he feels. The theme of cleanliness appears in the imagery too with purifying fire and hand washing scenes. I wonder if he feels unclean or has been told he is unclean or perhaps both.

I am left considering the artist's emotions. He is taking in the pain around him and trying to communicate the horror he is experiencing. He is watching his friends die in pain. They are objectified. He is confused. Even Jesus (who I see as a figure of goodness and compassion whose appearance here can be interpreted on many levels) is helpless in the face of the grim killer of AIDS, just as the artist must have felt. I am left wondering if the artist himself was a religious man. I could think of nothing more poignant to capture the horror of AIDS than showing something I hold dear in a disturbing way. I want to add that there is nothing in this video to indicate the artist's religious beliefs. (In the Puritan era, imagery of the human figure and immortality was considered sacrileges. We find the depiction of both acceptable today. The acceptability of the display of certain imagery changes over time and not everyone within a community prescribes to the same point of view. The choice of imagery does not indicate a religious persuasion one way or another.)

So, is this art? I give it an emphatic and unquestionable YES! Art is not something that I have to like. It is something that challenges me, that makes me think. Art is not in the eye of the beholder, beauty is. If this video did not make you think, than you were not trying to think when you watched it. Art is a means of communication. You must try to listen to what the artist is telling you and open your mind beyond your own experiences. Think about another person's communities and ideals and learn from them. You do not have to agree with their point of view.

Should the federal government support this kind of art? The federal government is not in the business of deciding what is art and what is not art. Our government supports the continuance of our culture as Americans. The things that we create that convey our experiences as human beings allow our culture to continue. We can not stifle the voices that are beyond our experience or that are different from our own and still function effectively as a nation, especially as a nation that says it believes in freedom. All of our experiences together form a tapestry that is the United States.

Finally, that leads us to the role of the cultural institution. The repositories that care for our culture have a prime missive to encourage discussion of diverse topics related to humanity and the world around us. Cultural heritage institutions, Such as the National Portrait Gallery, use their collections to encourage dialogue by starting the conversation with exhibits and programming. (As uncomfortable as it might make us, sickness, death, self-loathing, doubt, fear, hatred, confusion, and marginalization are all part of our current society and all need to be discussed.) By making cultural materials accessible in logical places and by making controversial works viewable in safe environments, we can better interpret history, work to understand diverse communities, and create a more informed society for a more successful future.


  1. I could not have said it better. Art is supposed to expand your thinking, not restrict it. Which is what makes art so subversive and so scary to people with narrow perspectives. We recently visited the newly redesigned North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh-Durham. The architecture is brilliant, the collection--to those of us with more sophisticated knowledge of art--is mediocre and poorly displayed. We overheard a curator leading a group say to the group that the museum staff were told by the board to 'downplay the abstract art because most people don't understand it and people in NC prefer traditional paintings'. There was a Joseph Albers abstract hanging next to a no-name artist representational painting in the style of Boucher. I was horrified--but also certain--that the disturbing juxtapositioning was due to the colors in the two paintings were similar and so they "matched". We questioned the curator to find out if that was behind the choice of display and the embarrassed curator confirmed it for us. She went on to say that the conservative Christian museum board wanted the taxpayers of NC to be happy and COMFORTABLE while visiting the museum.

  2. I think you said it best, the government is not in a position to judge what is art and what isn't! yes, the video in question is powerful and at times irritating, but it provokes some sort of emotions out of the viewer as it should. Art is Art!