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Controversy continues to mount in N.Y. over art exhibit Land calls ‘blasphe


NEW YORK (BP)–Though a federal judge recently ordered the City of New York to restore $7.2 million in funding to a museum hosting a controversial art exhibit, the ruling does not validate the “blasphemous nature of the work involved,” a Southern Baptist ethics leader said.
Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the artwork at the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s current “Sensation” exhibit is “highly offensive to all people of faith.” Land said he hopes the city prevails in its legal battle. Following the court decision Nov. 1, the city announced it will appeal the ruling.
The exhibit features, among other things, a painting of the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung and pornographic images.
The court’s decision was followed by a demand Nov. 10 by the New York City-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights that the museum director, Arnold Lehman, resign for lying about who gave him money to bring the controversial display of art to the museum.
Land noted that the federal ruling does not change the fact that “multitudes of believers are outraged by the museum’s decision to display this blasphemous work by rightly protesting that the public should not be asked to subsidize through public tax money portrayals which denigrate and desecrate symbols of their deepest religious convictions.”
In a 40-page decision announced Nov. 1, U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon granted the museum’s request for a preliminary injunction and barred city officials from “taking any steps to inflict any punishment, retaliation, discrimination or sanction” against the museum.
Mayor Richard Giuliani said Gershon was “totally out of control” and “abandoning all reason under the guise of the First Amendment.”
The mayor has characterized the artwork, part of the personal collection of British advertising executive Charles Saatchi, as “sick stuff.”
Giuliani said museum officials “don’t have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody’s else’s religion.”
Giuliani’s likely opponent in next year’s race for a U.S. Senate seat from New York, First Lady Hillary Clinton, defended the museum’s right to host the exhibit. In a recent trip to New York City, Clinton said it “is not appropriate to penalize and punish an institution such as the Brooklyn Museum” for agreeing to show the exhibit.
The exhibit is controversial because it includes not only the artwork which depicts the Virgin Mary with elephant dung on her chest and surrounded by pornographic pictures, but for several other paintings and some very gruesome displays of dead animals. One of the other paintings, for example, depicts the Last Supper with a naked woman in the position where Christ would sit. Many of the paintings feature nudes depicted so graphically they are not shown on network or local TV news broadcasts about the controversy.
The exhibit is so grotesque that the museum itself warned that some of its displays might actually physically sicken those who come to see it.
Picking up on that statement, the New York City-based Catholic League recently demonstrated outside the museum with “barf bags” it gave people who were going in to view the artwork.
Catholic Cardinal John O’Connor has sided with Giuliani, saying he is “saddened by what appears to be an attack not only on our blessed mother, but one must ask if it is not an attack on religion itself and in a special way, on the Catholic Church.”
The controversy pits those, such as O’Connor and Giuliani, who say public funds should not be used to subsidize the museum if it is going to show such artwork and those who argue the museum has a right, under the First Amendment, the freedom of speech and expression clause of the U.S. Constitution, to host the exhibit.
But using the First Amendment as a defense is particularly odious to Land, who said it is “outrageous for the museum’s defenders to try to hide behind the First Amendment freedom of speech protections, when in actual fact what they are really doing is reaching into the public’s purse, taking the public’s money, to subsidize an odious assault on people of faith’s beliefs.”
What the mayor correctly argued, Land said, was not that the artist does not have the right to display his work, but that the public has the right not to subsidize its appearance.
“This kind of Christian bashing will continue until we demand it stop,” Land said. “Does anyone imagine the artist could take the Star of David, a symbol of Judaism, and deface it with elephant dung or pornographic images and the powerful Jewish community in New York City would remain silent? No! They would raise such a hue and cry that the museum would have to withdraw the work from public subsidized display, as it should.”
Publicly sponsored institutions are not free to do anything they wish with the people’s money, Land said. “There is such a thing as accountability to the public trust.”
Meanwhile, Catholic League President William Donohue on Nov. 10 called on Lehman, the museum’s director, to be dismissed. In a statement, Donohue said Lehman lied to the public when he said he had not collected money from Saatchi, the British advertising executive whose work is displayed in the controversial exhibit.
“Lehman should be terminated for violating the public trust,” Donohue said. “Not only did he give the green light to a gross exhibition that featured a frontal assault on Roman Catholicism, he engineered a boatload of money from those who stood to personally profit from this venture,” such as Saatchi and Christi’s, the prestigious auction house which later auctioned off some of Saatchi’s art collection.
Had Saatchi “been a pimp for the church, by sponsoring reverential art, everyone who is now willing to turn his head would instead be calling for Charlie’s head,” Donohue said.
“Like all cabals, this one reeks with corruption, making it impossible for the public to have confidence in Lehman’s leadership,” Donohue said.
When Lehman was director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, that institution and Johns Hopkins University presented a film series on “religious extremism.” Among those labeled “extremist” was Mother Teresa.
The film, titled “Hell’s Angel,” written and directed by Christopher Hitchens, described Mother Teresa as a “ghoul” and a “reactionary” who opposed abortion and birth control.
Lehman also incensed Baltimore Catholic Church leaders by having the museum purchase and display a controversial Andy Warhol depiction of the Last Supper. Lehman was involved in several other controversies while working in Baltimore.
While Land said that as a Southern Baptist he does not share the same attitude toward the Virgin Mary as does Donohue or other Catholics, he nonetheless “respects her as the mother of Jesus and am deeply offended by this blasphemous tableau. This is use of tax money in a painful and hurtful way.”