Virgin Mary Hoopla
by Jeremy Reynalds
LoudCitizen.com - 04/06/2001
A highly-controversial, bikini-clad version of the Virgin
Mary on display at a state museum has been described by its artist--a practicing
Catholic--as an expression of her personal faith.
A Wednesday meeting of the regents of the Museum of New Mexico
that would have decided the exhibit's fate was canceled after an overflow
crowd caused concerns about fire safety. Regents will have to give 72 hours
notice before rescheduling the meeting.
The issue has now become so heated that it has escalated
into a verbal boxing match, with religious leaders taking on the so-called
defenders of free speech. Fight contestants include the American Civil Liberties
Union, the American Association of Museums, and museum staff and volunteers.
The Catholic League, a New York based civil rights organization,
has also jumped in the ring. In a statement, League President William Donohue
commented that the museum's state funding and operation make it unique.
Donohue said, "(The museum) has a special obligation,
therefore, not to use money from taxpayers for the purpose of abusing their
racial, ethnic, religious or cultural affiliations ... . Moreover, the museum
has its own guidelines and that is why the Catholic League has seized upon
them in writing a letter to the board of regents. Our advice? Observe separation
of art and state."
Devout Catholic parishioners are also up in arms, calling
the image blasphemous. And Archdiocese of Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan
is pretty upset too. In a statement released by his office, Sheehan called
the picture "insulting, even sacrilegious."
Sheehan said he finds "it offensive that the Catholic
symbol of Guadalupe has been so disrespectfully treated."
Referring to some recent controversies over other sacrilegious
treatments of the Virgin Mary, Sheehan wrote that "In the recent past,
the Virgin Mary has been shown in contemporary art smeared with elephant dung
and she has been depicted as a golden haired Barbie doll. Now this! ... I
wish those who want to paint controversial art would find their own symbols
to trash and leave the Catholic ones alone."
Sheehan correctly pointed out that such a "repulsive"
picture shows "imprudence in the administration of a state-funded institution.
Such a picture has no place in a tax-supported public museum ... I doubt that
the Jewish community would be patient with such a mistreatment of symbols
sacred to their faith."
No, the Jews wouldn't be very patient and neither would Native
Americans, Hispanics, African-Americans and so the list goes on. But here's
the problem. The issue usually never comes up, because our culture doesn't
as a rule treat such groups with the disdain that is routinely showered on
conservative evangelical Protestants and Catholics.
For example. Look how rudely a museum volunteer put protesters
down and insulted them when he told media that "The people involved ...
are very traditional, and I can appreciate that. I think they also need to
understand that everyone does not have the same approach." How condescending
But no doubt, all those poor ignorant and traditional protesters
should have had their feelings assuaged when they learned from a museum official
through local media that there was no "malice" in the creation of
the display. (Wow. What a comfort. No malice, but most definitely a lot of
stupidity!) In a feeble attempt to rationalize the picture, Tey Marianna Nunn,
curator of contemporary and Hispano and Latino art at the now controversial
Museum of International Folk Art, told local media that the picture "comes
out of a tradition of Guadalupe always changing to represent contemporary
Really? When you see how the work originated, it sounds like
the product of someone with serious psychological problems. The artist, Californian
Alma Lopez, said the picture was inspired by a passage she once read in a
book by Sandra Cisneros, who wondered (and then unfortunately chose to put
her "wonderings" down in print) what saints wore under their robes.
Human beings routinely wonder all sorts of things, most of
which fortunately never make their way out of the murky recesses of the mind
onto public display. That's because they're just not appropriate. Such ruminations,
if made public, could quite aptly be called "rude, crude and ill-bred"
and amount to issues not usually discussed in polite company.
So you'd think that museum officials--especially ones like
Nunn, who earned a Ph.D. (probably in American Studies!) from the University
of New Mexico--would realize the problem with Lopez' work and would respond
appropriately. But does she? Not a chance! Nunn told reporters that Lopez
"has a right to do this, and it is part of the museum's mission to document
It's true that Lopez does have a "right," but does that "right" extend to having her work exhibited in a state-funded museum at taxpayers' expense? And if the museum feels the need to document "change," it needs to be "change" within the boundaries of good taste, in this case as defined by members of the conservative Catholic religious community. If the museum is unable to do that, then such repulsive apologies for "art" needing public display should be hung somewhere else (perhaps a rarely used, out-of-the-way bathroom?) and funded with private dollars.