During the Howl Obscenity trials in 1957, Judge Clayton W. Horn declared, The theme of "Howl" presents unorthodox and controversial ideas. Coarse and vulgar language is used in treatment and sex acts are mentioned, but unless the book is entirely lacking in social importance it cannot be held obscene. (PSCv.LF) Whether literature or visual art, censorship has and continues to pose a threat to the freedom of expression. Uniformity, sterility, or formulaic are hardly appropriate characterizations of the contemporary art movement. Yet, art institutions charged with introducing works to the public—whether for-profit private or non-profit public institutions—seek stability in their exhibits, becoming “safe places for safe ideas” rather than “safe places for unsafe ideas” (Gardner 58). While the United States supports freedom of expression with the First Amendment and a slew of Supreme Court cases, other pressures exist. These pressures manifest themselves in the form of self-censorship. The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Washington D.C., a branch of the Smithsonian Institute, was met with contention after a controversial exhibit and poor decision-making when inevitable outcry followed. Self-proclaimed as a dynamic exhibit showcasing marginalized gender and sexual identities that molded the modern American portraiture, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” featured a segment of David Wojnarowicz’s film A Fire in My Belly (1987). Dissenting religious groups and Republican senators objected to a section of the film for portraying alleged anti-Christian sentiment. Subsequently, the NPG decided to remove the film for diverting attention from the overall purpose of the exhibition. In life, Wojnarowicz was well acquainted with censorship and won a high-profile Supreme Court case during the height of the Culture Wars when conservative activists distributed warped and slanted versions of his work to spread a distorted impression of his views. Considering Wojnarowicz’s personal struggles with censorship, the decision to censor his work in an exhibit revolving around the exposure of suppressed artists could trigger nothing but immediate reprisal, and so it proved.
Demonstrations were organized, institutions and galleries all across the U.S. showed the film, The Museum of Modern Art added the film to its collection and one of the primary funders of the Smithsonian Institute, the Andy Warhol Foundation, demanded the return of Wojnarowicz’s film or funding would be cut. By exploring the inflamed criticism surrounding the piece, the reasons for censorship become all the more excessive and unwarranted; while censorship serves to protect the public from obscene content, the nature of decency is subjective. The art world over-reacted, using the controversy to promote the positions of various parties seeking publicity, notoriety, money, or political advantages, distracting from the overall purpose of a piece. The notoriety of progressive artists who attracted social, political, and legal controversy throughout history continues to shape contemporary law today. In an era that boasts forward-thinking, “artists, like everyone else, are vulnerable to the inconsistencies, misunderstandings and deliberate legal manipulations of language and the interpretation of images” (DeGenevieve 159). “A Fire in my Belly” attracted this compromising attention, and subsequently faced the dissension of right-wing activist. As if attempting to reignite the Culture Wars of the 1980s, the Catholic League criticized the only aspect of the exhibition within defensible grounds, even though their appeal to John Boehner, the House minority leader at the time, contains patent homophobic sentiment (Bozell 1). While their publicized opposition was contingent on the alleged anti-Christian themes, the right-wing advocates simply interpreted the film for its superficial,