The wide open lobby wall at SAM
  • The wide open lobby wall at SAM
"There's nothing to be afraid of in this video," Seattle Art Museum director Derrick Cartwright said after watching David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly, the video that the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery removed from view on December 1, after threats by two Republican congressmen who hadn't seen the art they called anti-Catholic. "We've shown things far more difficult than this."

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The follow-up question asked itself: Will SAM join the museums and galleries across the country that have risen up to show A Fire in My Belly, then?

SAM still hasn't decided.

That's the first paragraph of my full story in this week's paper calling for the most powerful art institution in the city to take a side in this national conversation. SAM is the only institution that hasn't done anything yet.

The Henry will be showing the video, the Frye posted a link with a statement on its web site, and the video is already on continuous display at Greg Kucera Gallery. All available versions of the video—the short version that played at the Smithsonian, a longer artist's cut, and outtake footage that the artist saved with the intention of one day using it in some way—are playing on the gallery website now. You definitely want to watch them. Holland Cotter has a very good description breaking down the imagery and what it means here.

My piece describes Cartwright's appearance at last Friday's screening of the video at Seattle University. His presence meant a lot, but it means a whole lot less if the museum does not itself screen the video.

There is some hope that SAM will show it after all. Yesterday—after the paper had already gone to bed—I had lunch with Cartwright. He said he did not have "some trustee" or funder holding him back. I tried to explain why I believe it's so important to actually screen the censored work, rather than simply hang another print by the artist in the lobby, as Cartwright said he was considering doing. "The video is not his best work," Cartwright said. To me that's beside the point, I told him. (I also think the video has plenty of value.) We debated for a while.

By the end of our conversation, the SAM director said he was "almost convinced" to screen the video at least once prior to a public discussion. Since it's a time-based work, and since there are two versions of it available—the edited version that played at and was removed from the Smithsonian, and a longer artist's cut—it seems to me any discussion would be best served by allowing people to spend some time with the images, which means seeing the video several times.

Walking me to the door, Cartwright stopped at the white lobby wall where he's considering hanging a print. "Our installation team was like, yes, let's do it, right away," he said. Why not screen the video here? Cartwright cited a few logistical concerns and the need to get a license from the artist's estate (which has already licensed museums and galleries around the nation, including Greg Kucera in Pioneer Square).

Just one of many images of bodily suffering in the video.
  • Just one of many images of bodily suffering in the video.
Why such resistance? Cartwright kept maintaining that he wanted to do something "bigger" than merely showing the video—a discussion, maybe a show (?). It remained unclear to me why screening the video would preclude something bigger.

Part of my passion comes from having seen all versions of the video last week at Seattle U. Shot in Mexico and borrowing its violent imagery from Catholic art history, it expresses profound anguish—Wojnarowicz had just lost a lover to AIDS and been diagnosed with HIV himself (he later died of it)—and forms a testament to the ravaging effects of powerlessness. To silence it is a monstrous act that has to be responded to by powerful people.

That's where SAM comes in. Museums don't often get such an obvious chance to simply do the right thing.