Where Are All the Angry Young Men?

7.16.2012

By John Reed

Cynthia Carr's book, 'Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz' looks at one young artist's constructive rage. It should be the cultural biography of the year.

Carr, in her evocation of Wojnarowicz as a mature artist, meets the high expectation of the artist’s first full biography.  The narrative of Wojnarowicz’s struggle to remain sane, to make work, and to soldier against political factions determined to ignore, suppress, and do away with him, is as riveting and moving as Crime and Punishment, and as heroic and active as James Bond.  In the midst of attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts (President Ronald Reagan had tried to abolish the NEA when he took office in 1980), which called out works by Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, Annie Sprinkle and many others, Wojnarowicz contributed a text piece to Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, an exhibition curated by Nan Goldin for Artists Space.  The essay “Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell,” distilled Wojnarowicz’s thinking on politics and arts, which he’d been working with as his primary subject matter since 1986.  Wojnarowicz sought to personalize his political experience, and the essay is a tirade, but a justified one. 

City, state, and federal government had massively failed to address AIDS, taking years to acknowledge that there was even a problem, acting with lackadaisical neglect on information it did have about the disease, and legislating (at least in New York) burdensome restrictions on testing.  As late as 1985, New York’s health commissioner, David Sencer, denied that there was a “crisis.”  The city, he told the San Francisco Chronicle, had done enough: “The people of New York who need to know already know all they need to know about AIDS.”  Everything, said Senser, was under control. Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., reported Randy Shilts in his 1987 book, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, “conservatives in the White House worried that people in the government should not be in the business of telling people how to have sodomy.”

In his Artists Space essay, Wojnarowicz fantasized about dousing Senator Jesse Helms with gasoline and setting “his putrid ass on fire,” and throwing Congressman William Dannemeyer off the Empire State Building. 

(Pictured: David Wojnarowicz. Bad Moon Rising, 1989 Mixed Media.)

Since 1985, Congressman Dannemeyer had blocked AIDS education, sought to quarantine people with AIDS, and promulgated the science that “AIDS emits a spore that has been known to cause birth defects.”  As a publicity stunt for his soon-to-be released book attacking the gay rights movement, Dannemeyer read a ludicrous description of his vision of “What Homosexuals Do” into the Congressional record:

“Activities peculiar to homosexuality include: rimming, or one man using his tongue to lick the rectum of another man; golden showers, having one man or men urinate on another man or men; fisting or handballing, which has one man insert his hand and/or part of his arm into another man’s rectum; and using what are euphemistically termed ‘toys’ such as one man inserting dildoes, certain vegetables, or lightbulbs up another man’s rectum.”

Wojnarowicz’s essay went on to call Senator Helms “the repulsive senator from Zombieland,” and dub New York’s Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor, “the fat cannibal in black skirts.”  (Wojnarowicz had actually backed off on the Cardinal O’Connor line, having revised from the original “the fat fucking cannibal in black skirts.”)

Various disclaimers, and Artists Space removal of NEA funds from the costs of producing the catalogue (Wojnarowicz wasn’t in the gallery show), didn’t deter the opposition from returning fire.  The new chair of the NEA, John Frohnmayer, bungled the affair, caving to pressure to withhold the $10,000 NEA grant.  The showdown was widely viewed as a test of the “Helms amendment,” which enabled Congress to censor the actions of the NEA, and the NEA to decide (overseen by congress) what was obscene: 

“None of the funds authorized to be appropriated for the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Endowment for the Humanities may be used to promote, disseminate, or produce materials which in the judgment of the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Endowment for the Humanities may be considered obscene, including but not limited to, depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts and which, when taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

In fact, the Helms amendment wasn’t in play, because the grant had been awarded to Artist’s Space in 1989, a year before the compromise was enacted, and the NEA backed down, shelled out, but a cultural war had been sparked, and Wojnarowicz was quick to understand the repercussions.  Writes Carr:

“Few on the ‘art’ side of the culture war saw what was beginning here, while the far right found a uniquely exploitable world—skilled professionals making highly charged imagery that they could take out of context.  The right wing frothers soon learned that—yes, nuance could be crushed, intimidation would work, and facts did not matter.  Right-wing media would get the lies our unchallenged. … Meanwhile, the Frohnmayers … of the art world thought they could reason with the right, thought truth would change perceptions.  They thought this was an episode, not the beginning of a train wreck.  But David with his rebelliousness and his passion and his hairtrigger temperament and his illness that had made him even more sensitive to the total blockage in society—he got it immediately.”   

Social conservatism had adopted AIDS as proof of the sinfulness of homosexuality, but Wojnarowicz was unwilling to accept the presumption, and the sex and anger stayed in the work. “I don’t think having AIDS is something heavy,” Wojnarowicz told Rosa von Praunheim for his film Silence=Death, “it is the use of AIDS as a weapon to enforce the conservative agenda that’s heavy.” 

As an emblem of what was wrong with the arts, Wojnarowicz continued to trigger salvos: in 1990, Reverend Donald Wildmon mounted a letter-writing campaign, xeroxing details from Wojnarowicz’s works.  (Wojnarowicz successfully fought back, issuing an injunction against Reverend Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association for violation of the New York Artists’ Authorship Rights Act.)  As recently as 2011, Wojnarowicz was in the news: after fielding complaints and fiscal threats from the Catholic League, Minority Leader John Boehner, and Representative Eric Cantor, the Smithsonian Institution removed Wojnarowicz’s short film A Fire in My Bellyfrom the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.

But Wojnarowicz’s larger contribution is not combative or controversial.  In his work, he manages to summon, amidst all of the above, himself, a living man, with thoughts, emotions, memories and sexuality. Carr’s biography performs the same miracle, tracking not only the trajectory of an artist who crossed paths with history, but a man whose boyfriend told him no, he could not take a dead vulture home in the car. 

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (One day this kid . . .), 1990. Photostat, 30 × 40 1/8 in. (76.2 × 101.9 cm). Edition of 10. Self portrait.

Tags: Art & Books
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