ARTAND VALUES
On Virginsand Dung
(
Thoughtson New York's 'Sensations' Exhibit)

Where Chris Ofili has gone about his work with his own hatred for some religious themes clearly on view, another artist, Howard Cruse, has found meaning in a compassionate treatment of religious themes that in the end is liberating not only for him, but for people like myself who find his work both engaging and innocent. The boundaries of art are a legitimate concern of editorial inquiry because 'Good Order' and the well-being of society at large can sometimes go awry in the presence of desecrated symbols.


Special & Exclusive to USAfrica The Newspaper and USAfricaonline.com By JOE SHEA

HOLLYWOOD, California -- I was asked by the Founder & Publisher of USAfricaonline.com, Chido Nwangwu, to write on the desecration of the image of the Virgin Mary by a London-based, African-born artist named Chris Ofili -- and awful offal he is -- I was inspired to search the World Wide Web for a treatment of religious issues that was both controversial and yet inoffensive to those of opposing beliefs.

Serendipity drew me to the work of an artist named Howard Cruse and his comic-book take on homosexuality and a minister named Jerry Mack and another -- with some extraordinary verse -- on an unlikely lad named Penceworth who emulates Hitler as a child and grows up to hate gay people. The relevance to the show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art is in its successful inversion of accepted values to achieve a liberated voice in defense of gay rights and in opposition to hatred based on religious or gender preference.

Where Ofili has gone about his work with his own hatred for some religious themes clearly on view, Cruse has found meaning in a compassionate treatment of religious themes that in the end is liberating not only for him, but for straight people like myself who find his work both engaing and innocent. The boundaries of art are a legitimate concern of editorial inquiry because 'Good Order' and the well-being of society at large can sometimes go awry in the presence of desecrated symbols. Let me illustrate this concept with an extended and fictional metaphor. Suppose that in a town like Monroe, New York, where I grew up, a Jewish congregation has its temple near a forward-thinking Episcopal church. In the ordinary course of business, let us imagine, the church decides to cover one wall of its white frame Colonial facade with a mural, and offers a prize for artists who contribute the winning concept.

Most of the muralists work in spray paint, and they have outrageously strange ideas of beauty. But one has the idea of bringing Jews and Christians together by re-imagining the hated Nazi symbol (which 1,200 years ago was a Buddhist symbol) in such a way that it infuses the symbol not only with some of the original Buddhist meaning but a fresh Christian perspective that intends to declare that God's mercy is such that even suffering can be made beautiful.

The artist produces the most lovely and colorful swastika ever drawn. Flowers and grape leaves, the faces of children and the soaring of larks infuse the artist's spirit in the work, which surprisingly is a genuine and sensitive work of art. So the artist wins the prize and the mural goes up on the side of the Grace Episcopal Church, just up North Main Street from the Monroe Temple of Liberal Judaism. Among the members of the first congregation are many believers in free speech and free expression; there are even more of them in the Jewish congregation, but among them are also survivors, and the children and grandchildren of survivors, of the Holocaust.

A work of art that offends a substantial number of people is divisive in any community. But is divisiveness a quality that should be suppressed at the price of free expression? Let's visit my metaphor again.

Back in Monroe, even its harshest critics are willing to admit that there is beauty both in the concept and the execution of the mural. But the survivors and their families are devastated by the public display of a hated symbol, however transformed into one newly beloved of their Christian neighbors. Reluctantly, because they believe very deeply in free expression, the Jewish congregation organizes demonstrations, newspaper ads and letter-writing campaigns. Those efforts prove fruitless against the arguments of the church'es pro-expression leadership, and time only exacerbates the growing anger.

As tempers rise, prominent members of the Episcopal church who work for Jewish-owned businesses in town are threatened with firing if the mural is not removed. A young and attractive Jewish lawyer gains financial backing to oppose the town's popular Epsicopal mayor. Then the anger spills out into the open; opponents of the mural deface the church; angry defenders paint their lesser versions of the mural on sidealks and walls.

Tensions rise extremely high, and sothe press takes an active interest. The networks report on it, and newspapers write editorials. The Jewish Defense League (JDL) vows to come to town and paint over the mural, and The mayor vows to stop any act of "vandalism" against the church.

On the appointed day, members of extremist organizations like The Order and the Klu Klux Klan also show up to face off with the angry soldiers of the JDL. In an act of what he calls Christian comparison for the peace and safety of all the people of the town, the minister of the Episcopal church decides the mural will be removed. That, however, angers some of the strangers that have come into town, though, as well as some of the Episcopalian defenders of the mural; there is fighting, and in the melee, someone is stabbed. Police bust heads and break up the riot with difficulty. The town's name is disgraced. In communities across the country, police chiefs and mayors nod sagely at each other and say, "We don't want another Monroe around here."

The moral of this story: no artist in the world can transform a symbol of hatred into a universally-admired pece of art -- there can be no such thing as a beautiful swastika -- but any artist can exploit both dormant and active social faultlines. In our fictional Monroe metaphor, there was a fundamental misapprehension of the sensitivities of ordinary people on the part of the artist and the church, and it produced violence in a peaceful place.

In the case of the "Sensations" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, an artist whose actual name suggested both dung (offal) and unartistic work (awful) took a sacred symbol -- that of the Virgin Mary -- and desecrated it in what he thought was a meaningful way. The anger of ordinary and not-so-ordinary Catholics that erupted in response was predictable, and inversely, so was his work. Ever since Andrea Serrano's "Piss Christ," art that offends the religious has been a fairly sure route to fame. I have a profound belief in the ability of healthy democracies to work through divisions among people and to permit all of them, ultimately, free expression without incurring violence or stirring hatred in return.

Unfortunately, only a few democracies are at that stage. That New York City avoided violence over the Sensations exhibit is a testament to the strength that can be found in diversity when it is joined to respect for the law. That happy condition, however, is still far away for many places in this country, and still further for nations like Serbia and Kosovo, where a Serb-speaking U.N. worker this week was killed by angry Kosovo Albanians only because of his use of the language. No one paints smiling murals of Slobodan Milosevic on the walls over there, and for at least a century, no one will.

In New York, it was the museum's directors' and the artist's lack of compassion for human sensitivities that failed; to the city's great credit, respect for the law survived. Yet there is one more important point to make: all transformation -- religious, political and cultural -- is prefigured in art. However bad it may be, to suppress it is to halt the historical momentum of liberation that I believe will ultimately bring us all closer to God.
Shea is editor-in-chief of The American Reporter, and was the named plaintiff in the landmark First Amendment case Shea v. Reno, which got the Communications Decency Act declared unconstitutional in Manhattan Federal Court in 1996.


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