Fresh Air: Terry Gross Interviews David Wojnarowicz

The interview was broadcast on Fresh Air with Terry Gross June 26, 1990.

Fresh Air is produced at WHYY, Philadelphia and distributed by National Public Radio.


Fresh Air: Terry Gross Interviews David Wojnarowicz

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Terry Gross: David Wojnarowicz is an artist at the center of the controversy over government funding of the arts. He was represented in last year's group show Witnesses Against Our Vanishing, Art About AIDS. The exhibition was at Artists Space in New York. The National Endowment for the Arts withdrew its funding from the show, then reinstated it, but with the stipulation that no endowment money be used to fund the catalog. The reason was the catalog essay, written by Wojnarowicz, which attacked prominent political and religious figures. Earlier this year, Wojnarowicz had a retrospective exhibition at the Illinois State University galleries in Normal, funded in part by the NEA. Reverend Donald Wildmon in spearheading the attack against the reauthorization of the NEA. One of his recent mass mailings was headlined: Your tax dollars helped pay for these, quote, works of art. Below are sexually explicit images taken from Wojnarowicz's multimedia works. This week, Wojnarowicz took Wildmon to court for violating his copyright and distorting his work by taking it out of context. The judge issued a temporary injunction against the pamphlet. A full decision is expected in a month. Wojnarowicz described how Wildmon used his art. 

David Wojnarowicz: What he did was, he excised from the images, small fragments that dealt with sexual activity or depicted sexual activity that were in a political and artistic context, stripped the context from around the image and then presented that image as the full work, put my name on it. And he did this to 14 images, three of which were not sexual in nature, and sent them around the country. 

Terry Gross: What charges were made about your art in the literature that was sent out with images from your work in it?

David Wojnarowicz: It was sent out in an envelope that was marked, warning, extremely offensive materials enclosed, or something. I don't have the envelope in front of me, so that's an approximate description of it. What he did was essentially reduce my work by stripping out all the artistic and political context that I place images in, and he basically left the very strong impression that my work consists of solely nothing more than a banal pornography.

Terry Gross: Now you're saying that he took one component of a larger mixed media collage work. 

David Wojnarowicz: Right. 

Terry Gross: And blew that up and presented that as being representative of your work. You've been working with mixed media images for a long time. Tell us a little bit about why you work in that form. 

David Wojnarowicz: I guess emotionally and intellectually, it's the only way that I can represent what my experience in the world is. I do a lot of things. I write. I make videos, films, performances, paintings, photographs, et cetera. But the mixed media is, in terms of the paintings and some of the photographs, is just about the only way that I can approximate what it feels like to live in America at this point and time, given that when we walk out in the street, we're so heavily bombarded with visual information, whether it's store signs, newspaper covers, magazine covers, advertising, et cetera, that I like to use a variety of media that somehow approximates what it's like to walk down a street or to move through a space in contemporary America. 

Terry Gross: One of the issues that brought your work into the center of national controversy was the 1989 group show called Witnesses Against Our Vanishing, about the influence of AIDS of aesthetic sexuality and culture. This was a group show at a gallery called Artists Space in New York. What was your reaction when, after the NEA reinstated money for the show, it still refused to fund the catalog because of your essay? 

David Wojnarowicz: I found it very distressing because it sent out a message. One, it set a precedent in terms of funding that now single objects can be separated from a show because somebody doesn't like their political content. Two, it sends a message, or it sent a message to institutions around the country, publicly funded institutions, that they shouldn't deal with work that might be critical in terms of politics. 

Terry Gross: Let's talk about how you started making art. Now you came from a really rough family background. Your father abused your mother. You ended up in an orphanage for a while, then your father kidnapped you from the orphanage. And you've written that you later threw yourself into sex, and you became a hustler for a while. How did you start making art?

David Wojnarowicz: I made things on and off for years since childhood. By the time I got off the streets, I was living on the streets for a period of time, by the time I got off when I was about 17 or 18, I had to turn to making things because I basically could never find place in contact with people to ever express what I'd experienced. 

Terry Gross: How did you get off the streets? 

David Wojnarowicz: It was pretty complicated. I met an individual in Times Square, who had picked me up and who let me live with him in a very small apartment he had on 45th off 8th Avenue. And he was a thief and he was a con man. And he was working at a halfway house for young men coming out of prison as a counselor on falsified psychology degrees. And at some point, I guess he got tired of me living with him and he asked me if I would like to go to this halfway house where I'd have my own room, et cetera. And so in a very odd, roundabout way, he gave me help. 

Terry Gross: You must've seen yourself as an outsider from the art world. And I think in fact, early on in your work, you did a series of pieces that were designed to confront the art world. 

David Wojnarowicz: Not so much to confront. I think my feelings of whatever I've made has always been to put into a public arena something that was very real to me, whether it was a series of issues, whether it was a series of images that dealt with reality, as opposed to whatever code, social code that at times is imposed on reality. 

Terry Gross: Can you describe what some of those early pieces were like? For instance, the piece that you did. Was it inside or outside one of the Castellis Galleries? 

David Wojnarowicz: Well, that was an action installation. I did that with an artist musician Julie Hair, who is a musician in a band that I was in, in the late 70s. And we did it. We wanted to do a series of what we called action installations, which were basically uninvited installations. And we wanted to open up an idea of what culture was to us as opposed to what was handled by basically rich white people. And we did an installation dealing with hunger. And we went to Castelli's staircase on Lower Broadway at 12:00 in the afternoon on a Saturday afternoon when the art world is madly rushing around. We brought a couple of hundred pounds of bloody cow bones from a meat market on 14th Street, dumped them into the staircase, did a painting, a stencil painting with spray paint of an empty plate, a knife, and a fork, and then military bombers and houses and flames and figures recoiling on the wall, and then left. Nobody seemed to think anything was amiss as we were preparing the installation. I mean, I imagine they thought it was just part of the art world. 

Terry Gross: How did you actually get into the world of galleries in New York? 

David Wojnarowicz: It was sort of by accident. I was spray painting things in the streets. I was spray painting things on abandoned cars. I lived down around 4th Street in Bowery, and there would be car wrecks in the area or cars would be towed there, disabled cars. And they would sit there for literally years. So I started spray painting images of war on these cars, and they'd be towed overnight. So I found that was a great way to start cleaning up the area that I was living in. And at some point, somebody had seen my work in the streets and met somebody who knew me, and asked me to participate in a group show. And I had never really done what I considered paintings, and I went home and I worked on some and gave them to them. Then the gallery asked me if I wanted to have a one person show, so I did, and it sort of went on from there. 

Terry Gross: A few years ago, your lover died of AIDS, and you have AIDS now. And I wonder if the reality of AIDS has refocused the subject of a lot of your art, the content. 

David Wojnarowicz: Yes, I would. I mean, I've always painted what I see and what I experience and what I perceive, so it naturally has a place in the work. I think not all the work I do is about AIDS, or deals with AIDS. But I think it's the threads of are in the other work as well. 

Terry Gross: Has it been easy for you to work now, between problems with your health and all the energy that's been taken up with controversy surrounding your art? 

David Wojnarowicz: Actually, it makes it difficult to work. It's very time consuming and attention consuming, so I have found it difficult. I mean, I've managed to continue working on a smaller level, but I'm hoping that once this trial is out of the way that I can continue. 

Terry Gross: How's your health? 

David Wojnarowicz: It's been okay. I mean, it's been up and down. 

Terry Gross: Since so much of your art is political, do you in a way welcome the opportunity to take an even stronger political stance through lawsuits and through having work that becomes the focal point of controversy?

David Wojnarowicz: I don't. No, I don't welcome that. And I find that being involved in a lawsuit that what it's doing is preventing me from continuing working because all my attention has to go to the issue of this lawsuit and dealing with it. I'm looking forward to this being over with so I can go back to work and go back to a fair sense of quietness, et cetera. But I find it very, very disruptive. 

Terry Gross: Thank you very much for talking with us. 

David Wojnarowicz: Sure. 

Terry Gross: Artist David Wojnarowicz. We contacted the office of Reverent Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association. He declined to comment or be interviewed. This is Fresh Air.