Fall 1999, Vol. 2, No. 3

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 3


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
Why Smash the Falun Gong?

Vouchers Move to Center Stage

Spiritual Victimology

The Kansas Compromise

Those Revolting Greeks

Covering Israel's Religion Wars

Discriminating Bodies

From the Editor: The BVM at the BMA

by Mark Silk

Every culture has its sensitivities. When the art show "Sensations" went on display in England, what drew protests was a portrait of a notorious child murderer. In America, it was a portrait of the Virgin Mary.

Chris Ofili, a British artist of Nigerian descent, portrayed Mary as an African woman in blue, a ball of elephant dung affixed to her right breast, the glittering gold surface of the entire 8’ x 6’ canvas adorned with photos of female privates clipped from pornographic magazines.

Spurred into action by William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil rights, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani pronounced the exhibit "sick stuff" and "Catholic bashing," and withheld the city’s monthly support to the Brooklyn Museum after the museum’s board refused to cancel it. "It offends me," said the mayor.

Both Houses of Congress passed resolutions condemning "Sensations." "It denigrates someone’s religion," said Texas Gov. George W. Bush. "I don’t think we ought to be using public monies to denigrate religion." Even politicians who supported the museum’s right to put on the show, like New York City Council speaker Peter F. Vallone, expressed shock and dismay.

"I share the feeling that I know many New Yorkers have that there are parts of this exhibition that would be deeply offensive," said Hillary Clinton, whose prospective race against Giuliani for a New York Senate seat was not entirely irrelevant to the fracas. "I would not go to see this exhibition."

The politicians’ unanimous condemnation assumed that the association of "Virgin Mary-elephant dung-pornographic images" was an offense on its face. Not everyone agreed.

Ofili, it turned out, uses elephant dung as a kind of signature medium. "Afrodizzia," another "Sensations" offering, featured dungballs inscribed with the names of such African American cultural icons as Diana Ross, James Brown, and Miles Davis. Presumably no disrespect was intended there.

As to the pornographic cut-outs, rock icon David Bowie, a financial supporter of the exhibit, intoned on a web-site tour of the art works, "In contrast to a world filled with lascivious images, the Virgin Mary still stands apart. As we venerate her, is she continuing to support us by absorbing our weakness, our human failings?" The cut-outs, wrote the New Yorker’s art critic Peter Schjeldahl, "allude to the element of fertility in Mary’s symbology, which Ofili did not invent."

There seems little question that Ofili -- a sometime altar boy who describes himself as a reasonably observant Catholic -- meant "The Holy Virgin Mary" to be provocative, not least by representing her with dark skin, a broad nose, and thick lips. But it is easy to imagine a portrayal-the Virgin Mary engaged in a sex act, let us say-that would have been harder to put in a positive light. Provocation is not necessarily profanation. And in any case, as a federal judge found, the museum was protected by the First Amendment.

Yet no one can deny someone else the right to be offended. The question is: Under what circumstances, if any, should civic institutions avoid offending religious sensibilities?

From his assaults on cultural productions like the short-lived television show Nothing Sacred, Donohue has made clear that his understanding of anti-Catholicism is not shared by many Catholics, including high-ranking members of the church hierarchy. It is nonetheless hard to dismiss out of hand the charge that Jews and Muslims and Buddhists receive a higher quantum of sensitive consideration from the country’s cultural gatekeepers than Christians do.

This may not be anti-Christian bias. The rules of American public discourse permit majorities, like public figures, to be assailed with relative impunity. Upwards of 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians; ergo, Christianity can be allowed to take more abuse than less populous religious bodies.

But of course there are Christians and Christians. American Catholics retain an awareness of themselves as victims of intense social and religious prejudice. Evangelicals think of themselves as a little spiritual leaven in a great big lump. At a time when no cultural tradition, especially the white European one, is supposed to be accorded privileged status, it might be wiser to treat Christianity as if it were just another minority faith.

In the end, however, there’s no avoiding an evaluation of the offending object itself. Amidst the full-court media blitz, a succession of polls found New Yorkers -- including presumably more conservative up-staters -- siding nearly 2-1 with the museum against Hizzoner. Why?

When New York Daily News reporter Michael Daly showed up at the "Sensations" exhibit, he found Brooklynites four-deep before "The Holy Virgin Mary" scratching their heads at their mayor’s expressed outrage. "I don’t see nothing wrong, nothing offensive," said 68-year-old Walter Hall, a retired hospital guard making his first visit to an art museum. "To me it’s artwork, beautifully done."