Contrary to what many artists claim, protesting against offensive art is never free publicity. Few things hurt the arts community more than when it produces works that lose touch with its supporting community.
This is especially evident in the wave of artworks which many consider blasphemous. Nothing attacks the sensibilities of a community more than an attack upon religious belief. After community protests, museum curators and artists nationwide are now starting to learn the chilling effects of such offensive displays.
Repercussions of a Protest
More than two years have passed since the display of Alma Lopez’s image of the Virgin of Guadalupe posing in a floral bikini held aloft by a topless female angel at the state-run Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe.
For months, this “piece of art” titled “Our Lady” divided the community. The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) and its America Needs Fatima campaign organized protests, worked together with local activists, and held a rally in front of the museum uniting nearly one thousand offended Catholics from all over New Mexico and at least seven other states. The museum admitted that it received over 65,000 protest postcards from all over the nation.
In a fascinating retrospective look at the controversy, reporter Teri Thomson Randall of Santa Fe’s The New Mexican (5/20/03) chronicled the painful rift the work caused within Santa Fe. It is a revealing lesson in just how effective protests can be.
She reported that the art community has not forgotten the controversy. Curators looking for new exhibits now seek to avoid offensive works especially those mixing sexuality and religious themes. Tom Wilson, former head of the Museum of New Mexico, told the reporter that he believes he lost his job in part over his refusal to remove Ms. Lopez’s offending work.
Because works of “art” are rarely taken down during protests, many are tempted to think that such actions are ineffective. The real effects are often hidden.
However, as Teri Randall’s article inadvertently indicates, anti-blasphemy protests are successful beyond all expectations. Protests are reaching more than just individual theaters or museums. Rather, directors, owners and curators nationwide are feeling the effect and weighing carefully the consequences of blasphemous art. Many of them are simply opting out altogether.
Indeed, well-organized protests can be most efficient. In the case of Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art, one protest prevented innumerable other museums from straying from the mainstream and venturing into the often bizarre subcultures that insist upon producing blasphemous “art.”
Self-Censoring Equals Not Offending
Due to protests, curators evaluating future exhibits must now be more careful in their choices. While some have labeled such policies as “internal censorship,” it is actually a greater sensitivity and restraint in determining what the public wants.
Teri Randall claims that pressures “to not offend museum visitors” in Santa Fe have been particularly strong since the “Our Lady” controversy.
“It’s not whispered, it’s intense,” Marsha Bol, director of New Mexico’s Museum of Fine Arts, told Ms. Randall.
Ironically, Catholic protesters have not called for censorship on the part of anyone. However, by protesting, they have obtained something much more effective than censorship: the respect of the arts community that no longer feels it can offend Catholics with impunity.
As part of the fallout from the Lopez controversy, Ms. Randal cited two incidents where curators avoided placing specific works by two potentially controversial artists in a New Mexican exhibit. One of them was painter Delmas Howe whose “Stations: A Gay Passion” mixed religious and homosexual themes in the context of Christ’s Passion. Another artist, Judy Chicago, pulled out of an exhibit when curators objected to aspects of her work, “If Women Ruled the World.”
A Change of Climate
Teri Randall also interviewed Tom Wilson, the former director of the Museum of New Mexico. Mr. Wilson refused to remove “Our Lady” from the museum, although he conceded to protesters by closing the entire exhibit four months early.
Although Mr. Wilson was not told why his contract was terminated, he believes it was partly because of the “Our Lady” controversy. He cited then-gubernatorial candidate Bill Richardson who said he was offended by “Our Lady” and backed Archbishop Michael Sheehan’s efforts to have it removed from the state-supported museum. He lost his job after Gov. Richardson’s election.
Mr. Wilson believes a new climate has descended on the arts establishment where curators might pick one work of art over another because one is “too hot to handle or more cutting-edge.” Even in cases where an offensive piece is considered, museum directors might reject it so as not to force their employees to confront controversy.
Public Input Now Sought
Another effect of the Santa Fe protest has been a revision in the policies of the Museum of New Mexico which allows more opportunity for public input on exhibits.
The Sensitive Materials Committee now meets quarterly, and any staff member can bring up issues at any time, from the planning stage to the opening of an exhibit. The committee can also request input from members of the public and experts.
By putting these measures into effect, museum officials hope to avoid being “blindsided” as in the case of the “Our Lady” exhibit where they did not foresee public outrage and controversy
All of this is the product of one protest which so many dismissed as ineffective. Others parroted the slogans of those who say protests give publicity to blasphemy. The fallout from the Our Lady exhibit proves just how wrong such slogans are.
The truth of the matter is that protesting makes blasphemy unwelcome. Protests create a rift between the art community and the rest of society which, in the “Our Lady” exhibit, proved hard to bridge.
Indeed, the arts establishment in Santa Fe learned the hard way that when it loses touch with the community, it becomes irrelevant and offensive to the common man in the street.
Reconnecting with Society
Traditionally, the object of art is beauty and it was the task of the artist to find expressions of beauty as it appeared in the context of daily life and culture. The artist existed for society, interpreting the legitimate aspirations and tastes in society’s noble quest for the good, true and beautiful. Society and the artist shaped and reflected each other.
Today, so many modern artists have thrown out objective criteria for beauty. Indeed, their obsession for breaking with tradition has been aptly called a cult to ugliness. Worst of all, they have lost that symbiotic connection with society. They no longer interpret society’s aspirations but impose their own views upon society. These artists lose touch with social reality and embark upon a quest to shock, doubt and rebel.
Perhaps one day art will return to beauty.
Until then, protests can make the cult to ugliness and blasphemy unwelcome.