Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz
During the weeks when I was plowing through this remarkable -- and remarkably long -- book, whenever I mentioned to people that I was reading a biography of David Wojnarowicz, I got the same response: a blank stare. Mind you, these were people who consider themselves cultured and who pride themselves on keeping up with artistic trends. One was an experimental filmmaker, another an art photographer.
If the name sounds at least vaguely familiar, it’s probably because you vaguely recall a dust-up when, bowing to political pressure, the director of the Smithsonian took down one of the deceased artist’s video installations. The situation was especially ironic, since this was the Smithsonian’s first exhibit dedicated to LGBT artists and was meant to signify that the nation’s premier preserver of all things American finally was joining the 21st century (the 20th, for that matter).
Wojnarowicz’s (rather tame) video of a primitive crucifix overrun by ants in the Yucatan would join the rest of the show when it moved to the Brooklyn Museum. By then, the furor had died down, and Wojnarowicz’s oeuvre returned to its relative obscurity. Every once in a while, a retrospective of artists who died of, protested or were influenced by the AIDS epidemic pops up; and PPOW, the Chelsea gallery that represents his estate, continues to market his work.
But for the general public -- even those who consider themselves plugged into the avant-garde art scene -- this angry young man, who survived an unbelievably brutal childhood only to succumb to AIDS, remains at best a footnote to the ’80s, a victim yes, but also a provocateur who, even in death, still manages to offend clueless right-wing zealots.
I don’t know how much Cynthia Carr’s compendious biography will remedy that, but she certainly deserves credit for trying. Thoroughly researched almost to a fault (more on that below), sympathetic but clear eyed, and flowingly written, "Fire In the Belly" gives us a nearly day-to-day account of an extraordinary personality who refused to be categorized -- in his life, in artistic media, in his sexuality, in his demanding personality.
In the case of most artists, their childhoods are interesting only insofar as it reflects on their aesthetic development. All we know about Michalengelo, say, is whom he studied with and where. In Wojnarowicz’s case, one can truly say that the child was the father to the man.
That he and his two siblings not only survived but all also thrived in adulthood is as stirring a testament to the human spirit as those stories of survival in the Nazi death camps.
Trust me, the comparison is not that far fetched. Wojnarowicz’s family life was not that dissimilar to that of a Jew in the camps. Life inside the suburban New York homes where he grew up goes way beyond "Dickensian"; Oliver Twist’s workhouse would have been a step up from the tortures inflicted on him by his alcoholic father and distant mother.
We’ve all heard horror stories about alcoholic parents. But Wojnarowicz’s dad was in a class by himself. A ship mechanic (when he could sober up enough to find work), he would literally torture his children in every way possible.
This is a guy who savagely beat the family dog -- because it didn’t sit at attention during one of his hours-long drunken monologues. David, his sister and brother were subjected to abuse that makes Mo’Nique’s character in the film "Precious" look like the Virgin Mary.
One scene that stands out in my mind is the three children wandering around in a suburban mall, their bodies barely clothed in rags, their faces obviously bruised, their faces maps of sheer terror. But neighbors, police and school officials looked the other way; in the ’50s, families were supposed to resemble sitcoms like "Leave It To Beaver," and those outside the family unit didn’t consider it their responsibility to interfere.
I also had to cringe when Carr describes how David’s teeth had become rotten torture devices. Dental care was way, way down the list for these parents!
Things got marginally better when his mother, after finally breaking away from the abusive husband of all time (this guy didn’t just wave a shotgun; he fired it), moved into New York City. In a clandestine operation, she brought the three kids into her one-bedroom apartment on the fringe of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen.
This was not today’s Hell’s Kitchen, an upscale gayborhood, but an urban hellhole that fully lived up to its name. The move provided the young David with a concrete playground of drug dealers, hookers and the other marginalized human detritus of the urban jungle.
Living only a few blocks from Times Square, which back then was descending into the seedy morass we now know primarily from films like "Urban Cowboy" and "Taxi Driver," the lonely young man gravitated to outcasts like himself. And it was in this crucible of by-the-hour hotels, porn palaces and all-night donut shops that Wojnarowicz began to find his artistic voice.
David received his education not in decaying public schools but on the mean streets, where he soon enough discovered that youth -- even one battered and scarred -- had its charms for certain older men. Wojnarowicz drifted into the twilight world of Times Square hustlers. The most stable relationship of his youth was with a married man who paid him for sexual favors but more importantly gave him the affection he could never get at home, even if he had to be paid to receive it.
New York, which was rapidly drifting into the institutional and societal chaos that would culminate in bankruptcy and urban blight on a scale until then unknown in the optimistic landscape of post-war America, proved to be fertile territory for a sensitive young man with a whole lot of pent-up anger.
As soon as he could, he broke away from his mother’s cramped quarters and lived on the street, which provided him with his real education. Writing in journals provided him with an outlet for his unfocused rage.
Miraculously, his siblings also escaped: his brother, to a home run by a group of sympathetic Catholic priests; his sister, to Paris, which became her permanent residence and where she rose to become a top fashion model.
It was on an extended visit to the City of Lights where, Carr believes, Wojnarowicz really began to hone an artistic vision. Modeling himself on his hero Rimbaud, the 19th century sexual outlaw and impressionistic poet, Wojnarowicz allowed himself to convey his inner feelings in prose and in art works assembled from collages, tabloid newspaper headlines and visionary images.
It was in Paris that he had his first mature relationship, with a man who would remain an emotional (and not occasionally, financial) support for many years. But his idyll in France couldn’t last, and, back in New York, he struggled through various day jobs.