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Let me make this clear before you read this review: Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz by Cynthia Carr is one of the most important books of 2012. Its importance rests not just in the place it will take in gay history and queer cultural criticism but in the place it should take in American history and the larger, general discipline of art history. David Wojnarowicz is one of the central figureheads of the New York City art scene of the 1980s and early 1990s, when artists working across media created work confronting the growing division between “us” and “them” and the crises of justice that spewed from the fault line left behind.
Few would question the important role Wojnarowicz played in that particular time and place. His name, like the words and images he left behind, arises often in accounts of the culture wars, the public battles that played out on a national scale and pitted politicians like Jesse Helms and Patrick Buchanan against artists such as Karen Finley, Robert Mapplethorpe, Holly Hughes, and Wojnarowicz himself. His art has generated a lot of vital, intelligent discussion over the last thirty years, but his life has always been a bit of a mystery, which is why Fire in the Belly is so damned important.
Carr is a journalist, and it shows. Her research is meticulous and impeccable, and that is harder than it sounds when it comes to Wojnarowicz. A few chapters into the book, Carr mentions how “part of [Wojnarowicz] would always wear camouflage. No one who ever knew him—not even those closest to him—saw all of David.” In no way is Carr implying that Wojnarowicz lied about any part of his life to anyone. He just rarely revealed everything, so it has long been difficult for anyone to develop a full, complete picture of him.
This withholding of information on Wojnarowicz’s part is most likely due to the intense emotional and physical abuse he suffered as a child and teenager. This is where readers begin to realize how much effort Carr has put into her work. If Carr finds it tricky to determine when particular events happened or even exactly what happened, she explains what can be confirmed as well as how she comes to her conclusions. She notes what one person said during a personal interview, what Wojnarowicz wrote in a letter, and what he wrote in his private journals and then uses that evidence to develop sound, sensible interpretations. This again becomes obvious when Carr depicts the years Wojnarowicz spent working on poetry before he became an artist, cataloging his publications, readings, and relationships. Wojnarowicz rarely spoke about any attempts he made to become a poet and allowed friends and fans to believe visual art was always his central mode of expression. Carr provides coherence where inconsistency and conjecture have long resided.
Another major reason why Fire in the Belly should be read by more than fans of Wojnarowicz’s art can be found in Carr’s intensive chronicling of a recent time in history that is already being forgotten: the explosion of New York City’s East Village into a haven for art and artists in the 1970s and 1980s followed by the neighborhood’s subsequent gentrification along with its art community’s destruction by HIV/AIDS and the culture wars of the 1990s. For a brief time, Wojnarowicz and those like him created provocative art using painting, photography, film, and whatever else was at hand. Then, that time ended. A lot of the art remains, though many like Wojnarowicz died from HIV. A lot of the buildings remain, though many have been boarded up or transformed into businesses or homes that look like anywhere else in the city.
Carr’s book deserves to be read widely so readers can develop not just a greater understanding of one of the most important American artists of the last fifty years, but also deeper knowledge of a place and time whose effects continue to ripple out today. The injustices that fueled Wojnarowicz’s life and art still exist, which is not a sign of failure but evidence of a foundation the rest of us need to continue building upon. I find hope in the fact that Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration is still in print twenty years after his death. Twenty years from now, I expect Fire in the Belly to be just as easily available. This is a case where the biography is just as necessary and important as the artist and work it describes.
Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz
By Cynthia Carr
Hardcover, 9781596915336, 624 pp.