New York City deputy mayor Joseph Lhota wants to run for real Mayor when Michael Bloomberg finally gives up the reins after twelve years (the last four of which he got by browbeating and bribing City Council to override voter-approved term limits.) But the New York Times thinks Republican Lhota may encounter some difficulty appealing to the largely Democratic city; you see, Lhota in 1999 denounced a painting as being “offensive” although he hadn’t actually seen it. On the sole strength of a lurid description Lhota condemned the painting, the artist, the exhibiting museum, and the man who invented canvas which made the entire kerfuffle possible. That kind of closed-mindedness doesn’t set too well with a lot of Gotham City voters who imagine themselves the most enlightened people in the universe. Going further, Lhota, along with law-n-order tyrant Rudy Giuliani began a campaign to bully the Brooklyn Museum into closing down the Sensation exhibit of which the “offensive” painting, Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” was a part. The pair threatened to withhold millions in city support for the museum and brought a lawsuit to have the museum evicted from their stately Beaux-Arts building which they had occupied since 1895.
The complaint centered on Ofili’s degradation of a holy icon of the Catholic Church by using elephant dung as a medium and applying cutouts shaped like tiny angels that were upon closer inspection photos of vaginas clipped from porn magazines. As this all took place in the 20th century, I had no easy way to call up a photo of the painting on the nascent web allowing me to form an opinion. I decided to take the 2 train to Brooklyn to witness the outrage for myself.
Because the painting is titled “The Holy Virgin Mary” I had an image of the classic rendition of Mary the mother of Jesus – porcelain complexion, blue eyes, WASP-y nose, long, shimmering poker-straight hair out of a Clairol commercial – defiled by shit and pornographic images. (Nevermind that the real Mary undoubtedly wore her black, kinky hair in braids to frame her dark skin and Mediterranean features.) So imagine my surprise when I finally laid eyes on the evil painting that nearly brought down the Brooklyn Museum: a luminescent, cartoon-like woman of African descent that bears absolutely no resemblance to the classic Mary oeuvre. Elephant dung had not been smeared or splattered as the media screamed. Instead, Ofili applied hardened clumps to give the painting a three-dimensional effect. He could easily have used clay, but according to the artist, “elephant dung in itself is quite a beautiful object.”
It struck me that had Ofili simply titled the painting something else – “Sturdy Black Woman,” for example – no one would have given it a second thought. It was a totally manufactured crisis; another phony “war” on Catholicism that victims like Giuliani and Catholic League head Bill Donohue constantly drum up. To stress the phoniness of it all, consider this: I doubt one in a thousand people today know who Chris Ofili is, yet as recently as 2005, hyperbolic ranter Bernie Goldberg named him one of the “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America.” Really?
In the end people were essentially offended by the name of a painting, not the painting itself – and that’s not how professional offense-takers should behave.