By Tony Phillips
'I had to get permission,' Simon Cowell tells Ryan Seacrest on season 8 of American Idol. 'I literally had a call on Saturday from Bono saying it would be their pleasure for Adam to sing this song.' Cut to the blue-black spectacle of Adam Lambert aerobically stomping the stage. A lacquered fingernail punctuates the air as he octave-hops U2's 'One' into an interpretation that's like his Scream 4 audition.
In Idol's compressed world, it takes less than 90 seconds: a queer fever dream jacked directly into America's prime-time consciousness. Lambert's is the umpteenth remodel of this ballad, released in 1992, the year Tony Kushner was prepping Angels in America for Broadway and Tom Hanks was shooting Philadelphia.
U2's single benefited AIDS research, and they tailored three videos to help boost sales. A moody, sepia-toned clip of the band cavorting about Berlin in drag was shelved over fear of conflating AIDS with sexuality. Another -- the band's favorite -- features Bono at a cocktail table in the smoky Manhattan nightclub Nell's. But the third video came closest to the song's AIDS-crusading heart.
It's often attributed to East Village artist David Wojnarowicz, who died the year 'One' was released, but it was directed by Mark Pellington. His black-and-white clip of a single buffalo running in slow motion complements the final fade to Wojnarowicz's best-known still from 1988'89, an untitled gelatin silver print depicting three buffalo falling from a cliff. The image, like most of Wojnarowicz's work, is drawn from nature, yet suggests our discord with it.
'Animals allow us to view certain things that we wouldn't allow ourselves to see in regard to human activity,' Wojnarowicz said in 1989. He also used images of clocks to convey the urgency of his life's work, cut short when he was 37. Dan Cameron, who curated the Wojnarowicz 1999 retrospective 'Fever' at New York's New Museum, recently wrote that he was 'one of the indispensable American artists of the end of the 20th century,' and that his 'art was never less than a matter of life and death.'
That matter has become a postmodern quandary touching on authorship, authenticity, and appropriation centered around his short film A Fire in My Belly, which dates to 1986'87 and was classified in Wojnarowicz's CV as unfinished, before the contents were stripped for use in other works. The footage was shot on a trip to Mexico and contains recurring imagery of a flaming eyeball, Mexican newspapers, a masturbating man, falling coins, Tarot cards, and ants swarming a crucifix.
These tiny ants loosed a giant shit storm, culminating last December when the Smithsonian's secretary, G. Wayne Clough, yanked the piece from the National Portrait Gallery's queer survey 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture' on World AIDS Day, after the Catholic League labeled the work 'hate speech' while the fresh-faced Republican class of 2010 piled on. The question becomes: How do you protest a protest against a work never completed, but reconstituted years after the artist's death in a way that may not square with his original intent?
A four-minute video condensation of Wojnarowicz's significantly longer film ran for a month in Washington, D.C. This facsimile opened with the 'edited for museum display by Bart Everly,' but the gallery representing Wojnarowicz's estate adds 'Hide/Seek' curator Jonathan Katz to the editing team. Katz admits to appending an ACT UP march as the new soundtrack for his streamlined film, but could the 'Hey, hey. Ho, ho,' marching rhetoric of ACT UP ever possibly construe as hate speech, even by the religious right? And is Katz's tinkering just as much a violence to the film as its ultimate removal from the show?