Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Condom portrait sparks wrong conversation

Niki Johnson, “Eggs Benedict”. (© Niki Johnson)

The decision by the Milwaukee Art Museum to acquire and prominently display a controversial portrait of Pope Benedict XVI fashioned from 17,000 colored condoms has created outrage among Catholics and others who see it as profoundly disrespectful, even blasphemous.
Many suggest that if a piece were as offensive to other faith traditions or communities it would not be tolerated, much less embraced.
Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki blasted the decision as insulting and callous. The museum acknowledged it has fielded about 200 complaints. A handful of patrons dropped their memberships; one longtime docent tendered her resignation; and at least one donor vowed never to support the museum financially again.
Museum officials said an equal number of people have voiced support for the piece and that memberships and pledges in general are growing. They said they regret that the portrait, by Shorewood artist Niki Johnson, has elicited such enmity. But they insist it was not their intent — nor the intent of the artist — to offend Catholics or anyone else. And they said they continue to enjoy the support of people of all faiths, including Catholics.
"This was never intended to be derisive, mocking or disrespectful of the pope," said museum board of trustees president Don Layden. "It was to have a conversation about AIDS and AIDS education. And my hope is when the piece appears in the museum that will be the focus of the discussion."

Okay, here's my take on this:

1) If you want to strike up a conversation about AIDS, try saying, "Hey, let's talk about AIDS!" Or is that too commonsensical a proposition? Creating a deliberately controversial artwork in the hopes that, when the furore dies down, the conversation will settle on your chosen topic is too hit-and-miss a proposition; it's like trying to raise public awareness of sex trafficking by filming the rape of a 15-year-old-girl. (Oh, hell, I hope this doesn't give some other public-spirited artistic moron any ideas ....) Art is a form of communication; therefore, it doesn't do for an artist to be too cute, allusive, or indirect in the hopes that her audience will "get" a message that can be stated more boldly.

2) Was Johnson really looking to strike up a conversation or start a lecture? Sadly, I do think Johnson was intent on making a statement on AIDS; specifically, she's looking to retail the Conventional Wisdom that handing out rubbers is better than teaching and practicing continence. So once she's distracted and alienated anyone who might have a conflicting view with a portrait that's overwhelmingly interpreted as disrespectful, who's left to talk about AIDS and rubbers except the "technology cures everything" crowd and the purveyors of sexual stupidity?

3) You wanted to start a conversation on AIDS with that shmatte? If the portrait had been done with balloons rather than condoms, it wouldn't be worth hanging in a decent museum of art. The lack of color shading and variation gives it a paint-by-numbers feel, an amateurish look emphasized by the macrame kit-like framework; the final result isn't much better than a black-velvet Elvis portrait. Its only real value is its shock value, and Johnson most likely knows it ... which further undermines the claim that it wasn't intended to be "derisive, mocking or disrespectful of the pope."

4) Ironically, by giving "Eggs Benedict" enough attention to say, "It's not worth clutching our pearls over," we give it more attention than it merits. The sad thing about juvenile attention-getting devices is that they work — they get attention. Long, angry screeds in our blogs and journals about a pretentious artist's badly-considered attempt at "raising awareness" give her and her portrait more free publicity. Nothing sells like controversy; we should have learned this from Robert Mapplethorpe's "Piss Christ".

5) The picture attacks the Pope and Catholicism because Islam has yet to develop any significant cultural influence in America. Certain strains of Islam are even more intolerant of homosexuality and promiscuity than Christianity ever was. But Islam is a latecomer to the US, while we were an overwhelmingly Christian nation from the first colonial settlements in the seventeenth century until progressivism began eroding our adherence to traditional Christian mores in the early-to-middle twentieth century. Even now, people aren't turning against "religion" — so far as they understand what religion is — so much as they're turning against orthodox Christianity. (As for liberal Christianity, it may attempt to rewrite salvation history in order to package a more feminist- and LGBT-friendly Jesus; however, Patrick J. Deneen is most likely correct when he writes that liberal Christianity is "fated to become liberalism simpliciter within a generation." Fear of offending Moslems by insulting Mohammed isn't what drives the picture; contempt for the Church's teachings on prophylactics does.

In line with that thought: In my most recent post on Catholic Stand, I've written: "... [W]hile we Christians can elect ourselves heroes by standing against the cultural Zeitgeist, we can’t make ourselves saints: that must be done in an unequal partnership with God. Humble pie is going to be an ever-increasing part of our diet from here on out. Let’s develop a taste for it early, remembering we can lose Heaven just like anyone else (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:11-12; 2 Timothy 2:11-13)." We're going to see a lot more blasphemous attacks on us and our beliefs as long as those whom The Blogger Who Must Not Be Named is pleased to call "Sore Winners" exact vengeance, rightly or wrongly, against Christianity for their misery-laden childhoods.

That is all. Semper Fi. Carry on.