Feb. 23, 2013
-- FIRE IN HER BELLY
Curated by Martabel Wasserman
June 8 – July 20
Opening reception: Saturday, June 8: 6-8 PM
The paradox of censorship is that it often makes artwork more visible. Art historian Richard Meyer has named this the “Jesse Helms Theory of Art,” whereby censorship creates a discourse around the artist and their work that helps secure a place in the dominant canon. Debates on the senate floor triggered by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) funding of ‘obscene,’
material unintentionally created a spectacle that brought conversations about the work out of the gallery and into the living room. Most notable were the cancelation Robert Mapplethorpe’
s A Perfect Moment
at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1989 and the controversy around the $15,000 prize awarded to Andres Serrano for Piss Christ
at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in 1987. This work has become iconic, which is not to say it has been muted of potential to cause controversy. This was made abundantly clear by the removal of David Wonjnarowicz’
s Fire In My Belly
from the 2010 exhibition Hide/Seek
at the National Portrait Gallery due to pressure from the religious right. What is harder to discern is the impact loss of public arts funding, gentrification, and the resulting turn towards commercialization and professionalization of visual art have had on cultural production as a result of culture wars battles of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In other words, what kind of imagery and imagining was foreclosed upon? One point of entry for better understanding this impact is through a more extensive look at what was being censored at the time and by what logic.
Meyer made a crucial intervention with Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in American Art
(2002). However, as he discusses, “For a work of art to arouse public controversy, it must cross a certain threshold of visibility—whether through museum or gallery exhibition, visual reproduction in the press, or attacks by would be censors. Until quiet recently visual art by and about lesbians has been restricted from reaching this threshold of visibility within American culture.” This is true not only of lesbians, but of women artists more generally. While there have been a handful of notable attempts to canonize these less visible works such as WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution
(2007, Geffen Contemporary at MOCA) and Modern Women
(2010, MOMA), these exhibitions further contribute to the compartmentalization of historical narratives around identity politics rather than the much-needed project of evaluating their cross-pollination. I am interested in mobilizing the aura around Piss Christ,
s X portfolio, and Wonjnarowicz’
s Fire in My Belly
to make an intervention in the narrative of the culture wars to include works that did not have the same amount of visibility as their contemporaries, namely women who have had their work analogously censored in the United States but for a variety of reasons generated less public attention. My hypothesis is that re-presenting these works in dialogue with each other will create a space to generate new insights into how suppression of dissent secured certain notions about the church, state, and sexuality that still have political and cultural traction today.
The influence of feminism in the activist strategies of ACT UP has been documented by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman in the ACT UP Oral History Project and by Ann Cvetcovich in An Archive of Feeling: Trauma, Sexuality and Lesbian Public Cultures
(2003). These audio and text based projects create the theoretical backdrop for a yet to be realized visual analysis of the connections between social movements. In conversation, artwork from second wave feminism and the AIDS crisis illustrate the persistent and effective challenges subcultures have posed to notions of citizenship and sexuality in the United States. As Helen Molesworth writes in “How to Install Art like a Feminist,” “Might feminism allow us to imagine different genealogies and hence different versions of how we tell the history of art made by women, as well as art made under the influence of feminism?” Using Molesworth’s methodology, I am not interested in insisting on the importance of individual woman in the narrative of the culture wars, but rather tracing the influence of the aesthetic strategies of feminism in the threat to the status quo that the works by Serrano, Mapplethorpe and Wojnarowicz have come to represent.
Martabel Wasserman, January 2013