Editor: The BVM at the BMA
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
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 citys monthly support to the Brooklyn
Museum after the museums board refused to cancel it. "It offends me," said
Both Houses of Congress passed resolutions condemning "Sensations." "It
denigrates someones religion," said Texas Gov. George W. Bush. "I
dont think we ought to be using public monies to denigrate religion." Even
politicians who supported the museums 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
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 Yorkers art critic Peter Schjeldahl, "allude to the
element of fertility in Marys 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
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 countrys 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
In the end, however, theres 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 mayors expressed outrage. "I
dont 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 its
artwork, beautifully done."