By Olivia Scheck
UPPER EAST SIDE — More than 100 New Yorkers gathered outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art Sunday to protest the removal of a video from the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C..
Protesters and organizers said the action, which called for the Smithsonian to return a video by the late East Village artist David Wojnarowicz to its "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" exhibit, recalled memories of the gay rights movement of the 1980’s.
"This is a bit of a flashback to the culture wars of the '80’s," said organizer Bill Dobbs of Art+.
"These types of street protest don’t really happen in New York anymore...but the Smithsonian’s actions are just so outrageous that it inspired people to come out."
Wojnarowicz’s video, called "Fire in My Belly," had been on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery for a month before organizers, under pressure from the Catholic League and conservative politicians, removed it from the show.
Wojnarowicz created the four-minute video about the experience of suffering from AIDS just a few years before succumbing to the disease. The piece included images of Jesus Christ and a crucifix covered in ants, as well as the image of a man masturbating, leading some to argue that it was "anti-Christianity."
But several of the protesters, who marched from the Met to the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum on Sunday, insisted that the piece was just the opposite.
"The ants on the crucifix is actually a very pro-Christ image," said artist Bradley Wester, 55, who attended the rally. Wester said the religious imagery was meant to analogize the suffering of people with AIDS to that of Jesus Christ.
"It seems strange that with so much progress in Washington something like this is going on," Wester added, noting the senate vote to repeal "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" earlier that weekend.
Rick Shur, 57, who hosted a cable access show about Christianity and the LGBT movement from 1984 to 1994, agreed that Wojnarowicz’s video was in line with Christian values, arguing that the uproar was "simply homophobic."
For other protesters, the event was not about the piece itself, but about the broader issue of censorship.
"I have been censored and people spoke up for me," said New York-based artist Susan Dessel, explaining her decision to participate in the protest.
Dessel said her piece "Our Backyard: A Cautionary Tale," which features sculptures of bagged corpses, had been walled off by the Long Beach Island Foundation for Arts & Sciences following viewer complaints.
"If you don't want to see the show, don't go," Dessel said.
Former New York Civil Liberties Union director Norman Siegel was also on hand for Sunday’s protest, calling on the Met, MoMA and local politicians to speak out against Smithsonian’s decision to pull the video.
"Where are they? Where’s the mayor? Where’s the governor?" Siegel asked. "We’re here to get them to speak out – because they could be next."