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Chicago Arts Community Rallies Behind Video Censored By The Smithsonian

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While late artist David Wojnarowicz's controversial video "A Fire In My Belly" didn't make House GOP Leader John Boehner cry, it certainly did make him angry.

The video, which includes a brief clip an ant-covered Jesus, was taken out of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery after religious groups and conservative politicians (including Boehner) called it offensive to Christians and a waste of taxpayer money.

The work was part of the National Portrait Gallery's "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," which explores the role of gay identity in art, and its removal has created quite a stir.

Though the goal of Boehner and crew may have been to limit the public's exposure to the piece, their uproar may have had opposite effect. The video was picked up by the Washington DC gallery Transformer, Los Angeles gallery CB1, New York's New Museum, Chicago's Nightingale theater and Wednesday evening, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago will show the piece as well.

When news of the Smithsonian's censorship hit Chicago's art community, there was initially a feeling of outrage. Beth Capper, an independent archivist, curator and art historian who is also a dual graduate candidate in Arts Administration and Art History at SAIC, said the initial "madness" turned into a desire to get as many eyes on Wojnarowicz's piece as possible.

"The screenings are really symbolic - organized to demonstrate solidarity with those in DC doing the same," Capper told HuffPost Chicago via email. "I felt that if people all over the States and elsewhere (there's a place in the UK now too) did this, it would really be wild - it would mean that Wojnarowicz couldn't be silenced no matter what."

Beyond the artistic censorship and possible homophobia that led to the removal of "A Fire In My Belly," many are afraid that public funding for art--which is already dismal--could become even more scarce.

"It's not only disturbing to our population of LGBTIQ folks and their allies (which, I hope, constitutes a majority), but, because, all of us, as artists, curators and arts advocaters are already routinely let down by the lack of public funding for the arts in this country," Capper said. "Any de-funding on top of the dismal amounts of money institutions currently receive would be extremely damaging. It is also insane that people would be willing to sacrifice the Smithsonian for one video which depicts 11-seconds of Jesus with ants on him. It shows a complete lack of knowledge about what these institutions preserve and exhibit, which includes, among many other historical artifacts, an extensive collection of objects, photographs. . . relating to the history of Catholicism in the United States and elsewhere."

Ariel L. Pittman, the administrative director of the Student Union Galleries (SUGs) at SAIC which will show the film, agreed, adding that members of the arts community should "fight against that push to de-fund at every step."

"Ultimately, I think if we do our duty and communicate with people about why Wojnarowicz's work, and other works like it that get singled out in this way, are important and valuable. . . we'll be able to make the far-right, anti-public-funding-for-art crowd look extremely foolish," Pittman said. "If they want to do something good for our fair country, might I suggest allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire?"

The resentment toward the Smithsonian on this issue has continued to grow in recent weeks. So far, the The Andy Warhol Foundation has threatened to stop its financing of Smithsonian Institution exhibitions if the film isn't brought back, and National Portrait Gallery commissioner James Bartlett has quit in protest. While critics of the Smithsonian understand that there was pressure from the right, many believe that they should have put up more of a fight.

"It was a little breathtaking for me how robotically they caved," said Christy LeMaster, the Managing Director of IFP/Chicago and founder of The NIGHTINGALE theater, which showed "A Fire In My Belly" Saturday. "By removing this specific piece, they failed to stand up for queer Americans, they failed to acknowledge our government's near-immoral initial response to AIDS, and they essentially told the new Congress they could take what they wanted."

Capper, Pittman and LaMaster hope their Chicago screenings of "A Fire In My Belly" will inspire the community to be vocal about the need for arts funding--and a need for artistic freedom.

The Eye & Ear Clinic screening series and the Student Union Galleries (SUGs) of the School of the Art Institute will present "A Fire In My Belly" at 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday, December 15 at in the Flaxman Theater (Room 1307), 112 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago.

Jonathan D. Katz, curator of "Hide/Seek," will Skype in for a chat with viewers as well.

Other Chicagoans interested in organizing a screening of Wojnarowicz's work can contact the Estate of David Wojnarowicz at info@ppowgallery.com.