There's Something About Mary

By Maria Lewytzkyj

With recent events at the Brooklyn Museum, once again there's something about Mary, Chris Ofili's Mary that people can't swallow. It appears that a nice 72 year old fellow by the name Dennis Heiner decided on a lovely Saturday, with the encouragement of his wife who too thought the painting inexcusable, to go smear white paint all over the "Virgin Mary." He slipped behind the plexiglass that protected the canvas, and went at it. The Brooklyn Museum was able to wipe off his artistic addition before it dried, within the hour. His addition of white smear will be greatly missed...or so his proselytes would say.

What has the "Virgin Mary" begun? How did she become something that the New York community and by natural extension the rest of the country and then reach across to the Atlantic where the artist himself lives and from whence the Sensation exhibition came?

Well if you take a look at Mayor Giuliani's website and read his "messages," you figure that what he's arguing against isn't the making of the art, but that there was taxpayer funding involved and that in itself is unacceptable. He is quoted as saying, "There's nothing, absolutely nothing in the Constitution that requires you and I to pay for expressions of opinion that desecrate important and significant national and religious symbols."

I ask you this. How often has government spending offended many of us who hold certain "national symbols" like peace and equality as something that shouldn't be denigrated? I would venture to say often. How often has it been quite obvious that the religious agendas of our politicians have guided the hearts of the masses? How apparently insulting has it been when silence has been the weapon used in order to ignore other points of view in the name of preserving so-called "national and religious symbols?" America, last time I checked my neighborhood and during travels, doesn't have one set of national and religious symbols, as the Christian Coalition and Catholic League might think. Just as a reminder, this is a country of many belief systems that is ruled by a majority of politicians who wish it was simpler and prove this in the ways they push their power around. I wonder how many people are insulted when the news shows the president going to a particular church on Sunday. Isn't that taxpayer money being spent in a way that some people may disagree with?

Better yet. Let's return to New York. Was it not taxpayer money that paid for police officers to patrol the Klu Klux Klan rally that occurred back in October? Giuliani, on the topic of the Virgin Mary was quoted as saying, "The spending of public money is a public trust and entails serious responsibility... Public taxpayer dollars should not be spent on the aggressive desecration of national or religious symbols of great significance and sensitivity to the very people who are being required to pay for this." I'm sure that there were plenty of taxpayers who would have argued that allowing such an event that would cost taxpayer money to occur was a form of aggressive desecration to national and religious symbols. Yet there were those who opposed the views of the clan, who felt that they had the right to freedom of speech and that was to prevail. The rally allowed for an extremist group to voice their opinion at the expense of taxpayers.

Returning to the Virgin Mary by Ofili. In a message from Giuliani on March 7, 1999 about the opening of the Frederick Phinaes and Sandra Priest Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History, Mayor Giuliani is quoted as saying, "Every single museum enriches, ennobles, and broadens our minds and the minds of our children." Let's stop to think about how far Giuliani really will go on broadening the mind. Ofili created this art using elephant feces. Many of those offended say that the use of dung in association with the Virgin Mary is a sacrilegious statement. But is it from Ofili's point of view? Are we sure that just because the Catholic church, or other American Christian organizations, may not ever consider dung as simply a medium Ofili chose to use as a return to the materials used by artists long ago and possibly as a reverential choice? Could it be that the dung represents fertility and in using dung in his painting, Ofili is actually not "throwing dung" at his black Virgin Mary but artistically comparing the fertility of nature and the fertility of a religious symbol? We can't know unless we open our minds and think about it, or ask the artist if he is willing to disclose his concept. I think it is rather possible that this is a battle of points of view and lack of education on what it means to be an artist. Art is about point of view and our exposure to art that challenges our beliefs and thoughts hereto now. This is consecrational.

Once again let's think about how taxpayer money is spent and whether we all like how its being spent. I've read many government publications that offend many people I know in its blatant denigration of the environment and its national significance. Should we ask that vegetarians' money not be directed in any way to the Department of Agriculture's meatpacking and cattle management departments? How far should we go to understand where every single one of our dollars is being spent?

The Brooklyn Museum of Art has received governmental subsidies for some time and is an art institution that has done its job righteously for a very long time. It seems that Giuliani basically tried to punish an important institution for his own political gain. What clout! In so doing, he tried to close the minds of those who look at art as something that must challenge our senses, must challenge us out of the daily numbness that sets in when we aren't challenged with new points of view.

It boils down to politics. Giuliani was lathering up those in his republican wing. They are mostly people who do have similar belief systems and won't broaden their minds to points of view that challenge their matrixes. If they're lathered and believe that he will do as they wish they would vote for him.

I got to speak about the Ofili's painting and the controversy with a dear 10-year-old girl who I am very close to. She listened as I told her first the description of the art, black Virgin Mary, dung, and black female asses, then told her that Ofili began using dung in his palette after a trip to Africa. He wanted to use this as a medium. People find dung offensive but he may not have been using it to offend, just using another medium. He was exploring. Not in a way that many people may explore, but he was exploring. She said to me, "So what's the problem?"

I had a conversation with a family member who believes that all museums should show art that allows families to walk through without a threat that good morals are being trashed. Good morals, hmm. Seems a bit difficult to construe that one. So, we might all agree on don't kill and don't steal and treat others as you would like to be treated. But let's move on. Are we to avoid adult curiosities so that we can cater to the children of this world? Then we could all remain in a childlike way and punish those who explore the realms of curiosity beyond the pure and moral in such a way that they can not show their work to the public, at least not when taxpayers money is funding it. That way, we could become a big Disney byproduct. What appears to be offensive from the get-go does not have to be seen as that, unless a person believes that things should be just so. Offense only comes when people feel threatened. How many publicly funded museums have put on exhibits that have offended all sorts of groups in our country? I'm sure it's a long list. Any art that captures a point of view not held by those in power is a quick source of contention and Giuliani proved that he isn't really that inspired to broaden his mind past a certain point.

In the same message that Giuliani made on March 7, "Celebrating New York City's Cultural Treasures," he quotes Albert Einstein. "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity." Seems that government by Giuliani talks the talk, but when its most conservative members starting hooing and hollering about their interpretation of a Ofili's Virgin Mary, it's time to cut government spending toward a well-respected museum because a the above said work of art doesn't have a good enough reason to exist for the government to support it. And that's because, because when it comes to money, power and politics, it's the most powerful who are allowed to question and get back satisfactory responses to their curiosity, but if the thought never crossed their mind, it must not be curiosity but deliberate offensiveness. The mystery of the day: is there really something about Mary or is there something about political power.