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Thursday, October 13, 2011


The Holy Virgin, 1997, Chris Ofili
Several years ago much was written and said about the Chris Ofili "stink" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art along with its implications in terms of free speech. So much "dung" was flung in both directions that we may have missed the whole point in what the artist was trying to say. Speaking of dung, one thing this exhibit said was that anything is now fair game to be used as an art medium. I figure emu dung will be the next rage. Think of it as recycling. If Ofili were reusing aluminum beer cans we'd be praising his conscientious efforts in preserving the environment--"Madonna of the Rolling Rocks" maybe? But seriously, having said that, maybe we should set aside matters of dung, beer cans, and good taste. Frankly, I'm not sure good taste means much anymore in the rarified world of New York art. On the other hand, publicity does. Standing in the shadows of the Met and the MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum curator may have felt like staking out a little ground with this controversial British exhibit as his lightning rod, hoping the politicians and media would react exactly as they did.

Madonna with the Long Neck,
1540, Parmigianino
The very limited word from the artists himself in all this is that he was underlining the "sexually charged" nature of traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary in this work using  his highly abstracted African-American vernacular (read elephant dung) in depicting her. He has a point. From at least as far back as the Medieval period, the clergy, aided and abetted by artists such as Giotto, Cimabue, and Duccio with their enthroned Madonnas, going right up through the Baroque era and beyond, have sought to fill a vacuum in Christian iconography--that being the lack of a female godhead as in various pagan religions. An interesting example of the Ofili's "sexually charged" Madonna images can be seen in Parmigianino's Madonna with the Long Neck, painted around 1540. In this centuries old process, the Catholic church and its paid painters have attempted to elevate Mary to a position on a par with Christ himself, praying for intercession with God through her, rather than through Christ. According to the Bible, Mary was chosen by God to be the earthly mother of Christ, and a shining example of motherhood for all time, nothing more.

A regal Mary, 1390-95
In his apparent disgust with what has become known over the centuries as the "Cult of the Virgin" in which the figure of Mary began to assume something close to a "queen of heaven" or "wife of God" status, (something definitely not supported by biblical teaching), Ofili would seem to be doing nothing less than what Martin Luther and other Reformation figures did in attacking the blatant iconography so present in the church of their time. The Counter Reformation reversed (or at least buried) many of the practices the Northern branch of the church found objectionable including the nudity and other sexually charged elements that had crept into religious painting at the time. It is not so much religion, but a man made religious institution that Ofili (a Catholic himself) appears to be attacking in his clumsy, ham handed way with his elephant dung Madonna. The only question came to be, once he had the world's attention, whether his chosen medium might have gotten in the way of his message. It's unfortunate Ofili's protest had to take on the tasteless guise it did, but perhaps, it had to be so tasteless in order to effectively make its point. Thanks to the combined efforts of the church and state (city) he seems to have succeeded. When is the last time you can recall a single painting having had such an impact?
A thoroughly modern Mary
takes on monumental
This queenly Mary seems a far cry from
that of Bethlehem

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