Two standards in depicting icons

Images: Outrage would follow mocking of some of America's politically correct groups, but the Virgin Mary seems to be fair game for all.

October 10, 1999|By MICHAEL HOLDEN

Imagine a painting about 8 feet tall and 5 feet wide. The subject? Martin Luther King Jr., or the Prophet Mohammed, or Buddha, or the Star of David. Now cover the face in that painting with elephant dung. Next, surround the figure in the picture with color photographs of female genitalia. Call the finished product "art," more specifically, a "collage." Then, try to get a museum or an art gallery to display your picture for the public.

No one would touch it. Why? Because covering a picture of King or Buddha or the Star of David with feces and pornography would be condemned as a hate crime. It would be an attack on the icons and images of some groups that are officially politically correct, and politically protected, in the United States today.

What would happen in the unlikely event that some museum or gallery hung a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. or the prophet Mohammed covered with dung and surrounded by women's private parts?

There would be screams of outrage. Howls of protest. Demonstrations. Accusations of bigotry, racism, cultural insensitivity, blah, blah, blah.

But if you take the Virgin Mary -- the mother of Jesus and a central figure in Roman Catholicism as well as in other Christian religions -- and cover her image with elephant dung and female genitalia, your picture will be displayed in London and New York museums.

If you are the museum director responsible for displaying this picture of the dung covered Virgin Mary, you'll be praised for "doing something really courageous." One art critic defended the dung picture by saying that "museums are arenas for the discussion of ideas."

Fine. But the problem with "discussing ideas" is that the discussion is always so one-sided. Would any museum in America today display a painting of the Jewish Star of David with swastikas all over it? Or a picture of Mohammed covered with pigs? (Muslims do not eat pork.) Would any of these "arenas for the discussion of ideas" dare to show a picture of Martin Luther King with Oreo cookies glued to the painting (the term, "Oreo" is an insult hurled at blacks who are deemed to be black on the outside and white inside)?

No museum in America today would dare show any of the images just described. Except for one image -- the Virgin Mary. Is it just a coincidence that the Virgin Mary -- a Christian, and, more specifically, a Catholic religious image -- is depicted in dung?

No, it is not. Because Catholics and other Christians are not protected against hate speech and the blasphemous attacks on their religious icons and beliefs. The media carry daily attacks on Christians and their beliefs, but never seem to criticize Jews, Muslims, or any other religions. Moreover, the media zealously attack anyone who dares to say anything about any of the protected minorities.

Today, if anyone questions U.S. foreign policy toward Israel, he or she is denounced as being "anti-Semitic." This has happened to Republican presidential nominee, Pat Buchanan, for daring to write in a new book that some ethnic groups -- including U.S. Jews -- have too much influence over U.S. foreign policy. But paint a picture of the mother of Jesus, cover it with dung and pornographic pictures, and you are hailed as a cutting edge artist. Your art is displayed in London museums and in the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York.

About $7 million of public money goes to the Brooklyn Museum of Art every year. New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani attacked the painting, and said the artist has the right to make any picture he chooses. But the mayor said the public should not subsidize this kind of art, which he called "sick stuff." Sick or not, the "Virgin Mary" painting has shown, once again, that the double standard is alive and thriving in this country. Artists, and others, regularly bash Christian religious beliefs and symbols with impunity.

What would happen if you tried to get your local museum or gallery to display a politically incorrect picture? For example, a painting that portrays something like Mohammed swimming in pork bellies; or Martin Luther King Jr.'s face in a bag of Oreo cookies; or the Star of David turned into a swastika.

You won't get many takers. Why? Because art museums -- like the rest of America's politically correct thinkers -- are not interested in discussing any ideas, or images, except their own true beliefs. It is OK to strike out at the Virgin Mary, to mock Catholics, to ridicule America's Christian heritage. But don't dare create any images, make any statements that bash anything connected with minorities, or their religions, or their symbols.

Sounds like a double standard to me.

Michael Holden is a freelance writer who lives in Chestertown.

Pub Date: 10/10/99

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