Politics and positioning in Smithsonian debate

How is it that two Twin Cities museum directors are players in a story that takes place in Washington, D.C.? And what will be the consequences of their actions?

Earlier today I reported that Walker Art Center’s Olga Viso has decided to screen the video “Fire in my Belly” at the Walker starting tomorrow. This after the same video was pulled from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

Last week the MIA’s Kaywin Feldman, who is also head of the Association of Art Museum Directors, released a statement on behalf of close to 200 museum directors criticizing the actions of the Smithsonian.

A deeper look at the controversy, and their reactions, reveals more than just protest.

Kaywin Feldman, as head of the AAMD, had an obligation to speak to this incident, in part because it sets a scary precedent: namely, museum administrators caving to the opinions of politicians. In her statement she pointed to the particularly disturbing fact that those protesting the work of art had, for the most part, not even seen it.

Olga Viso, on the other hand, is joining in with several other museums across the country to show the video by artist David Wojnarowicz (now deceased). As the head of a contemporary art museum, Viso must regularly support work that is controversial. The former director of a Smithsonian museum (the Hirshorn), Viso felt an obligation to see the show and comment on the incident on her blog (she has turned down requests for an interview).

But showing the video is by no means a controversial act. “Fire in my Belly” has been around for almost 25 years and can be found in numerous places on the web. That fact makes the Smithsonian’s action seem all the more questionable… and it makes the Walker screenings seem more like a bid for foot traffic than a genuine act of solidarity.

At this time what is needed is not another screening but a forum for an intelligent conversation, in which those who are offended by the work and those who are passionate in its defense can come to mutual understanding.

  • I think that if the issue is that a major museum caved to pressure and chose to censor the work, then major museum(s) choosing to show the work is a pretty legitimate and admirable reaction. I’m proud that the Walker is a leader on this national issue.

    I also think that “a forum for an intelligent conversation, in which those who are offended by the work and those who are passionate in its defense can come to mutual understanding” is not really possible, since most of this controversy is not actually about people who are legitimately offended by the work, but about people who know they can use the idea of “offensive art” as a wedge. I would wager that many of the outraged haven’t seen the piece at all.

  • Marianne Combs

    Laura – I appreciate your response. It is true that many of those who complained about the work of art did not see it at all, let alone in the context or the exhibition. However, I’m willing to bet that there are more than a few Christians out there who would find the images it depicts disturbing and offensive. Many of those same people do not step foot in a contemporary art museum because they don’t feel welcome there.

    Currently this story is being played out by the “officials” – politicians and museum directors. What would happen if we brought the conversation to street level? One of the most eloquent protests I encountered in researching this story was an individual who stood in front of the entrance to the exhibition, with the video playing on his iPod. It was a very personal gesture, and as a result, carried that much more weight.

  • conrad


    I find your suggestion that the Walker’s screening of this work is “more like a bid for foot traffic than a genuine act of solidarity” to be uninformed and offensive.

    The Walker’s display of leadership and solidarity with other institutions and galleries, a group that sadly does not include many of the most important contemporary museums in the country, should be applauded on all levels.

    Every leader and institution that stands up for this injustice will most certainly receive a barrage of hate mail, threats, and bigoted rants.

    It would be much easier to stand idle and silent, to avoid not only the vitriolic barrage of the “offended” but also the misdirected criticisms such as you have now applied.

    Without doubt the concerns and leg work involved in showing such a contested art work would certainly out weigh any minor increase in “foot traffic.”

    How lovely that your “internet” research on the subject brought you across some very meaningful personal displays of solidarity. All street level discourse is certainly important and powerful in its own right.

    But make no mistake, if institutions and cultural leaders across the country do not stand up and speak loudly and forcefully together, sitting on the steps of a museum watching your “i-pod” will be the only way to see such artworks.

  • Marianne Combs

    Conrad – I welcome your criticism, even if I don’t agree with it, because as I wrote earlier, I think it’s the debate around the video, not the video itself, that is most important in this instance.

    If this were a new work of art, that was not available for viewing by any other means, I would completely agree that arranging screenings of it would be an important statement in support of the freedom of expression of artists. But this is a work that has been shown numerous times in the past, that has been around for almost a quarter of a century! If museums are truly concerned with getting “Fire in the Belly” out to audiences, why don’t they simply post the video on their websites for the world to see? This would reach a far larger audience.

    Yes, the screenings will prompt bigotry and hate mail – how could they not? A screening does not give the opportunity for communication, only for one side to sit and be subjected to the viewpoints of another. At this point no one is going to come to see the film that isn’t already completely open and supportive of its premise, or conversely, primed to stage a protest and find offensive material at every turn.

    I’m simply saying that if museums really want to educate the public on the value of controversial art, they should do more than just screen the film. They should give people a forum to talk about it, and even express criticism, without fear of reprisal.

  • Howard Christopherson

    I think some people feel intimidated by modern art because they do not understand it and so they do not value it. The same people have an immediate negative reaction when they see something that the feel is obscene. Most often this involves nudity and religion. There are lots of these people who feel that way. Right wing politicians understand this and pounce on it at every opportunity because it gets headlines and the institutions buckle and remove the art. They win.

    In corporations if one person voices a strong negative opinion about a piece of art it is moved or removed immediately. No one considers the hundreds of people who enjoyed or had no affect from the same piece and said nothing aloud.

    This prevailing attitude gets us no ware and then nothing changes. It is so much easier to remove something than it is to discuss the value of a controversial piece of art. At the end of the day this seems misleading and hasty to cave in and remove it after all you can choose to not view it but you cannot choose to view it if it is not there.

  • Ben Heywood

    The crucifix throughout the history as been a symbol of Christ’s suffering for the sins of mankind. To use it to comment on the suffering engengered by the AIDS crisis of the ’80’s is surely both artistically AND theologically appropriate. Just look at Grunwald’s Isenheim Alterpiece (1505) painted for a hospital for victims of syphilis and ergotism. Was that depiction of actual suffering blasphemous? The passion has always been a vehicle for society to express visually it’s fear of disease and death, and how that the suffering of the body can bring redemption. Isn’t that comfort what religion is for?

    These people have no sense of art, culture, humanity or even the history of the religion that they profess to uphold. I am not a Catholic, but I find the mixture of sentimentality and puritanism that infects contemporary American religious discourse to be profoundly ahistoric and inherently ridiculous.

  • conrad


    It is your suggestion that the Walker’s choice to screen the film is simply a bid to increase foot traffic that I take issue with.

    The first responsible step in creating a forum for conversation is the screening of the complete work as created by the artist. A work of art that was intended to be projected and is also much longer than the 4 minute segment in the link you provide and that the NPG chose to include in its exhibition.

    The complete version provides the artist’s intent and gives context for his inclusion of the imagery that detractors have taken issue with.

    Based on statements posted on line in the last week, the artists estate has been working to release complete versions to institutions willing to screen the work, until Dec. 1 2010 it was impossible to find on line.

    There is now a 13 minute and 7 minute version as intended by the artist available here:


    Discourse, informed conversation, and criticism can only take place once the completed work has been screened as intended by the artist.

    An opportunity that the Walker has chosen to provide.

    I know you agree that there is no room for debate against freedom of expression.

    The people and institutions who made these important gestures of support in this matter are simply reaffirming their commitment to that fundamental right.

    Viso’s complete statement on the Walker site gives a first hand review of and context to the NPG show, it is also an invitation to see in person the work in question.

    I see the opportunity to view these works as the beginning of a conversation, not the end.

  • test

    Just testing.