Thursday, March 28, 2013

Beyond Scandal at the Brooklyn Museum

Here's a flashback for you:

It was 1999, and a museum in New York City was under fire for displaying a painting of the Virgin Mary that featured elephant dung and pornographic images of female genitalia.  Remember?

The museum was the city-sponsored Brooklyn Museum, which at the time, despite its history of nearly 200 years, was little known outside of the borough.  Nevertheless, it boasted a grand edifice, the city's second-largest institutional art collection, and a respectable pedigree in the East Coast art firmament.

Winning its battle for their right to continue showing this particular piece of, um, "art" helped burnish its credentials towards becoming a jewel in the borough's now-prized cultural crown.

The artwork - and, again, I use that term loosely - is called "Holy Virgin Mary," and it was created by the otherwise nominal English painter of Nigerian descent, Chris Ofili, a prodigy of prodigal ambition, if you will.  Indeed, even though he'd won Britain's prestigious Turner Prize in 1998, if it wasn't for this particular work, his reputation might still be widely unknown in America, his earnestly immodest style otherwise being so underwhelmingly received by art world arbiters in the Colonies.

To hear New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman tell it, change the name of Ofili's notorious painting to something with no religious significance whatsoever, and the elephant dung and dirty picture cutouts lose any significance whatsoever.

Art and the First Amendment: Not Always a Pretty Picture

In fact, it was the Times which today trotted out the memory of "Holy Virgin Mary," apparently hoping to trip up one of the city's increasingly popular Republican candidates vying to replace Michael Bloomberg as mayor.  Joseph Lhota threw his hat into the ring after successfully directing the city's Metropolitan Transit Authority's efforts in restoring flooded subways in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.  Currently, Lhota is the top Republican contender - an amazing statement in itself, considering the fact that before Rudy Giuliani's term, "Republican" and "mayor" were hardly ever used positively in a sentence.

And it was during Giuliani's tenure that Lhota served as deputy mayor, and how it came to be that Lhota led the Giuliani administration's charge against "Holy Virgin Mary," the Brooklyn Museum, and Ofili, who now lives in Trinidad.  Offended by Ofili's painting as a father, a Roman Catholic, and an official with the agency primarily funding the venue in which it was being displayed, Lhota quickly became the public face of the general public's fury at what was considered a travesty of shock art and taxpayer financing of it.

New York's pugnacious art world, however, angrily denounced Lhota's angry denouncement of "Holy Virgin Mary" as a restriction of freedom of expression.  A violation of the First Amendment.  An intolerable position for a municipal administrator to take in one of the world's most powerful art capitals.

That's what the New York Times wants to remind its readers today, as they profile Lhota and his refusal, even to this day, of backing down from his earlier crusade against the painting.  Although he concedes that today, the education he received in the nuances of our First Amendment would restrain him from officially castigating the work, he still thinks the way he guided the Giuliani administration's approach to this artwork nearly 14 years ago was appropriate.

Talk about talking like a politician!  If you still think the way you handled something back then was OK, but you'd try to like the same type of shock art were it to debut somewhere else in the city today, and you think you can sell that disconnect to New York's jaded voters, at least Lhota has the chutzpah necessary to duke it out for the privilege of occupying Gracie Mansion, the official residence of New York's mayors.

Back in 1999, I was working for an Internet technology firm, but if blogs were around then, I didn't know what one was.  Believe me, if I had, I'd have written about "Holy Virgin Mary," and I'd have probably praised Lhota to high Heaven for his vigorous stance against city money going to putting it on display.

It's not so much a matter of being open-minded when it comes to shock art and public money.  It's more a matter of public money doing the most public good.  And although Ofili may have claimed to be a Roman Catholic, and therefore qualified to express his artistic frustrations against his faith by portraying a critical personage of his faith in such an appallingly desecratory fashion, it's no responsibility of New York City taxpayers to make sure he gets a venue for showing it off.

This goes for shock art designed to intensely blaspheme the precepts of any world religion, whether it's Taoism or Islam. 

As a Roman Catholic himself, there's no reason for Lhota to try and "enjoy it," as he tells the Times he'd do if presented with this dilemma again.  He's perfectly justified in being offended by such a piece of artwork, since dung and pornography hardly represent appropriate ways of depicting the mother of Christ, or the central figures in any world religion.  And I say that as an evangelical Protestant who ascribes no deity to Mary whatsoever.

Ofili may have been enthralled with the way ancient African cultures used dung to craft their religious icons, but Brooklyn is not ancient Africa.

To the extent that Lhota and Giuliani advocated on behalf of taxpayers regarding what even in a general context could be considered an obscene piece of art - liberal feminists, for example, would otherwise be outraged at the depiction of female anatomy in such a lewd manner - I believe they did the right thing.  But frankly, it was only because the Brooklyn Museum of Art is a public facility.

If "Holy Virgin Mary's" New York debut had been in a private gallery, the First Amendment free speech argument would be much clearer and valid.  Personally, although I find Ofili's sense of art unnecessarily graphic - and even cheesy and juvenile - I agree that he has the right to say whatever it is he thinks he's saying with it.  I don't have to help pay for its exposure, however.  New York City owns the building housing the museum, and the museum leases it from the city.  A private gallery, meanwhile, would not have owed New York taxpayers any deference, and taxpayers would not have had any leverage.

Who's Missing From the Museum?

But what constitutes "offensive" religious art, you ask?  Can't the argument be made, for example, that depictions of an ordinary crucifix in a museum sponsored in part with city funds is offensive to Muslims?

The Brooklyn Museum today
To be practical about it - and I realize art is often impractical - the objects of a particular religion may be intrinsically offensive to another religion.  And that's part of how religions work:  ascribing a hierarchy of symbols.  There is also a certain integrity in beholding something for what it is, despite what importance we may personally convey to that entity.

Ironically, upon none other than the Brooklyn Museum's ornate edifice itself, carved in massive granite mantles above its windows, are names of great historical personages, accompanied by statues depicting them, standing sentry-style around the entablature.  Included in this auspicious collection of world figures are saints from the Old and New Testaments - plus Mohammad - and apparently, nobody has a problem with that.  As well they shouldn't.

Of further interest is the fact that Jesus Christ is excluded from this collection of important people.  Was that out of a desire to avoid creating a graven image, perhaps, or was it simply an elitist snub?

Actually, the original idea was to devote one of the main, grand, interior spaces to prominent artwork honoring Christ, but thanks to the museum's choppy progress in getting built, and then its successive renovations, any traces of obvious homage to the Son of God have long since been obscured.  Which itself could be quite significant, considering the fact that other pieces of "artwork" just as scandalous as "Holy Virgin Mary" have been invited to what is today an unabashedly liberal institution.

Happenstance?  I think not.

Which brings us back to freedom of speech in art.  Couldn't depictions of blatant mockery intended to target a particular religion represent a different type of speech, compared with yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater?  For instance, displaying a vulgar image of Mohammad, as cartoonists around the world have done, is one thing when it's done for a privately-held newspaper or magazine.  And you saw the danger and peril those cartoons provoked.  While the wisdom of a private enterprise to do something like that is debatable, what is the merit of a publicly-funded institution doing so?  Especially if governments are supposed to protect people?

Getting To the Source

Even more important than these First Amendment contingencies regarding "Holy Virgin Mary," however, is the angst Ofili obviously dealt with in his soul regarding Catholicism and the mother of Christ.  I wonder if anybody in the evangelical community reached out to him in any way to help him with his faith-based questions, and offer him hope in the Gospel?  Did Ofili have any friends who are saved, who could have offered him the truth of Christ to replace the rituals of religion?

This is what I'm talking about when I say we evangelicals need to be loving towards people with whom we disagree.  Maybe people like me could never be close friends with somebody like Ofili because of the obviously different worldviews we display, but stranger things have happened.  Opposites do attract.  What's key is being real and genuine with people, and our sincerity has to come not from our personality or our mind, but the heart God has regenerated inside of us.

You likely don't care if Lhota is running to be New York's next mayor.  You maybe were too young to even have been aware of this controversy when it first erupted 14 years ago.  But as followers of Christ, shouldn't it at least make sense that while the things that people like Ofili produce may be offensive to us, we still need to see the person behind those offensive things?

Back in 1999, I doubt I would have put much thought into what motivated Ofili to create what he did.  Fortunately, however, it appears that I've matured somewhat in my faith, because now, I do wonder what motivated him.  What happens in hearts of people who see nothing particularly wrong with - or even take pleasure in - things like "Holy Virgin Mary" and the other dung-splattered artwork Ofili has created over the years?

Maybe those people are trying to tell us something more than what we see.

And maybe we need to listen.  Not so we can change our own minds and agree with them.  But because somewhere in what we find offensive, there's nevertheless a person made in God's image whom God may be calling to Himself.

God, after all, can turn anything - even dung - beautiful.

Talk about freedom of artistic expression!


  1. Yay! remember the controversy(maybe National Endowment for the arts?)over Mapplethorpe's bullwhip and the piss Christ pic. Mapple.. was a respected photographer in no need of public funds. was it nea bought his work?

  2. The NEA funds art shows and projects; I don't think they ever purchase art. However, the NEA has, at times, been its own worst enemy in the way it selects artists to fund. The thing with Mapplethorpe is that some of his photos are quite creative; sometimes it's the viewer who ascribes the pornographic element to them. That's where "art" component gets quite tricky.


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