Why David Wojnarowicz Matters By Dan Cameron

David Wojnarowicz is one of the indispensable American artists of the end of the 20th century. Through his paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos, writings, performances and music, Wojnarowicz opened up art’s expressive capability at an moment in history when it was viewed by too many as a sophisticated game of style and technique. In Wojnarowicz’s hands, by contrast, art was never less than a matter of life and death.

Born to working-class Catholic, Polish-American roots, Wojnarowicz had very little by way of formal art training in art, but was instead mentored by individuals along the way. As a young man, he was sexually and physically abused, and throughout his short life suffered deeply because he never concealed his sexual identity. As a result, the recurring problem of homophobia, both societal and individual, became one of the main motifs of his work. During the last years of his life – he died in 1992 of complications from AIDS at the age of 38 –, his one-man battle against fear and hatred of gay people burned with an intensity that is rarely witnessed in the contemporary art community.

In 1999, I was the curator of one of only two retrospectives of David Wojnarowicz’s art in this country, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in NYC. While the exhibition was well attended and positively reviewed at the time, I can honestly say that it is also one of the few exhibitions that have grown larger in the collective memory of the international art community. Wherever I travel in the world, no matter the purpose of my visit, I invariably encounter students, artists and curators who want to ask me about Wojnarowicz and his art. Not infrequently, it turns out they have never seen his work in person, but only in publications like the New Museum catalog or David’s own books of prose and poetry. Still, his art has touched them at the deepest level imaginable, bringing me to understand that, unlike most of his peers, the art of David Wojnarowicz continues to grow in importance.

The censorship of David Wojnarowicz’s work from the National Portrait Gallery is an act of unspeakable aggression against artists, writers, intellectuals, people affected by AIDS, and especially the entire LGBTQ community in this country and throughout the world. Right-wing politicians and religious leaders, sensing weakness on the part of our nation’s cultural community, have described Wojnarowicz’s video in deeply hypocritical terms, even going so far as to describe it as ‘hate speech.’ This Orwellian use of language to defame an artist who himself was the victim of hatred against gay people shows that the stakes in this battle are much higher than might be imagined.

The extreme right’s attack on this most vital of American artists must not be allowed to stand, if only because it is transparently clear they have no intention of stopping with Wojnarowicz. If we sit by and let this censorship occur without protest, the forces of censorship and homophobia will grow bolder and more aggressive in their attacks on artistic freedom in this country. Perhaps they believe that, because he was gay and died of AIDS, Wojnarowicz is vulnerable. It is up to us to prove that, on the contrary, when they picked on David, they drastically underestimated his importance to those of us in this country, and in the rest of the world, who don’t condemn what our most important artists have produced — we honor it by proudly showing it in our museums.

Dan Cameron
December 5, 2010

Recent Posts


What is a piece of clothing that “works”? Who is working whom? Is the one who poses the one who actually “works” hardest? The S/S 2017 collection of Berlin-based, Swedish- Vietnamese designer NHU DUONG entitled ‘WORK COLLECTION’ plays with the ideas of professionalism, leisure and appropriateness through a range of garments that are inspired by work outfits and hobby uniforms. Overalls, raw denim outfits, kung-fu pyjamas, biker pants, baggy tights and gloves, bomber-jackets, bomber suits,… [read more »]

Preparing to Welcome the Chthulucene | Agustina Zegers

Preparing to Welcome the Chthulucene is a text made up of living exercises to accompany Haraway’s theorization of the Chthulucene and her upcoming book Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Haraway posits that not only should we name the Anthropocene carefully (including the terms Capitalocene and Plantationocene within its narrative) but that we should also be using this crucial ecological timeframe to move towards a dynamically multi-species, “sym-chtonic“, sym-poietic future: the Chthulucene.… [read more »]

Laboria Cuboniks in Conversation

Laboria Cuboniks is currently a group of 6 women working together online to redefine a feminism adequate to the twenty-first century. They collectively wrote Xenofeminsim: A Politics for Alienation in 2014. Here, in conversation with Postcontemporary Issue guest editors Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik they discuss the dissatisfactions and limitations of historical feminism and the importance of theorizing “the future” as a feminist project. Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik: The initial formulation of your political… [read more »]

Situating Global Forms: An Anthropology of Cosmopolitan Science

Aihwa Ong, interviewed by Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik Constructing Globality Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik: Your anthropological research pays close attention to specific emerging and inventive configurations of globally-constituted modernization, particularly in East Asia and its diaspora. Throughout this work you identity many ways in which ‘things that used to be fused together — identity, entitlement, territoriality, and nationality — are being taken apart and realigned in innovative relationships and spaces by neoliberal technologies… [read more »]

Ways Of Living ⎮ Arcadia Missa

Ways of Living, curated by the team behind Arcadia Missa, moves beyond the home as a site of political contestation and into the working place, the artist studio, the public sphere, and nature. While so-called ‘social practice’ taught us that any attempt of art to engage with issues outside its own institutional reality are easily coopted into the mythologizing machinery of individualism and patriarchy, art still possesses an ability to address issues far beyond the… [read more »]

What is at Stake in the Future? | Alex Williams & Nick Srnicek

Every ‘future’ inscribes a demand upon the present. This is so whether at the level of human imagination, or within the sphere of political or aesthetic action necessary to reach towards their realisation. Futures make explicit the implicit contents of our own times, crystallising trajectories, tendencies, projects, theories and contingencies. Moreover, futures map the absent within the present, the presents which could never come into actuality, the wreckage of dreams past and desires vanquished. Futures… [read more »]

Dog Plays | Hayley Silverman

Hayley Silverman’s “Dog Plays,” an ongoing series in which a cast of untrained dogs take on the role of characters from a range of pop-culture texts, disrupt the canon of identities traditionally represented in Hollywood as they are re-inhabited by animals. Calling on artifacts ranging from Richard Linklater films, to science-fiction thrillers, to Depression-era musicals that rhapsodize class difference, these performances investigate how our understanding of narrative, authority and identity transforms when we project stories,… [read more »]

A poem by Ser Serpas

ripped apart you rip me apart collage million dead collage donde queda mi cuerpo el temporal como dios en mil partes clothing as point of impact a totem is a wrap around a city as it is engagement with one’s surroundings and engagement with that which has been worn out discarded and filtered into alms buckets and newly tagged i wear my surroundings on my feet when it wears out i see only my vantage… [read more »]

DISCREET Call for Participants

DISCREET – An Intelligence Agency for the People The 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art invites you to apply for one of fifteen spaces open to individuals interested in taking an active part in a three-week-long public workshop conceived of by Armen Avanessian and Alexander Martos for the formation and development of a civil secret service organization. Held from June 22 to July 11, 2016, the workshop brings together renegade experts from art, theory, technology,… [read more »]

Parent and Parroting | Nancy Lupo

Each year retail displays are readied in preparation for the gestation and labor of the catch-all holiday season before floating into a colorless postnatal celebration of mundane plenty. Capitalism’s sympathetic pregnancy makes for a cold and lifeless pas de deux, at times humorously inseparable from the vitality of social milestones. In Parent and Parroting, Nancy Lupo continues with a series of interventions into commercial products and industrialized food. Her interferences often reveal or reconfigure the… [read more »]