Opinion    Tuesday, July 10, 2001

Freedoms collide in world of art

By Robert Seltzer
El Paso Times
Without freedom of expression, the United States would be impoverished -- a cultural wasteland in which the majority of the people could impose its taste on the rest of us.

What a ghastly proposition. If head-bangers assumed power, for example, we might be burdened with a new national anthem -- "The Great American Nightmare" by White Zombie. And then the drug of choice, for those of us unaccustomed to such sweet melodies, would become aspirin. Can you freebase Tylenol?

Freedom of expression extends -- or should extend -- to art as well as speech, with the art forms ranging from novels to movies to paintings. But it is not just a freedom of speech issue; it is a moral issue. From cave pictographs to computer graphics, art has elevated us, separating us from the beasts that we turn into pets or, yes, dinner.

When we deny people the right to express themselves, we rob them of their soul, their humanity. We confine them, intellectually and spiritually. And that, thanks to the Constitution, is un-American.

That is also why the controversy over the portrait of the bikini-clad Virgin of Guadalupe is so complicated, so troublesome. Yes, the artist, Alma Lopez, had the right to pursue her vision. But one also understands the anguish of Catholics -- and others -- offended by the artwork at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe.

The portrait, a digital-photo collage, depicts the Virgin wearing a flowery bikini, as if she were an extra in a Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello movie. It is a bizarre juxtaposition -- the madonna meets Madonna. But, then, the artist wanted to jolt us from our complacency, from our safe and comfortable view of the world.

Or did she? Lopez, a self-described devout Catholic, has said her collage expresses her faith and her effort to present a woman of strength. Hmmm. Perhaps. But, to many, the Virgin seems stronger, more dignified, in her traditional garments.

It is hard to see how a glorified piece of underwear -- er, two glorified pieces of underwear -- would empower her. After all, the Virgin appeared before Juan Diego; she did not appear before Bobby Rydell.

The museum, sensitive to the complaints of the protesters, formed a panel to handle such controversies -- the appropriately named Committee on Sensitive Materials. Its verdict?

The group recommended that the exhibit which includes the digital collage close in October -- four months early.

"I believe that the museum really tried to hear what the community had to say ..." Lopez said after the recommendation was announced. "This closing early is really much more of this 'OK, we are hearing you, and we're understanding that you have this view.' It's really the good heart of the museum to compromise."

Some protesters think the museum should close the exhibit immediately, but the decision seems fair, especially since Lopez is OK with it.

The display will shut down early, and because the artist approves, the First Amendment was not trampled in the process.

It was a solution worthy of another biblical figure, Solomon.

Robert Seltzer is a writer and copy editor at the El Paso Times. E-mail: