I recently visited the New Museum in New York, which has a multi-floor exhibit called “Chris Ofili: Night and Day” with the colorful and at times massive paintings of the British artist, who has strong African influences. One of the works looked very familiar to me, something I had seen or heard about, if not viewed up close and personal. The piece must have had some significance, since it had its own jocular security guard standing next to it.
After I read a caption for the painting, I remembered the painting. I was in the presence of the notorious 1996 work titled “The Holy Virgin Mary.” It had caused massive controversy when displayed at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, when Rudy Giuliani was the Mayor of New York and part-time art critic. One description of the the piece states,
The central Black Madonna is surrounded by many collaged images that resemble butterflies at first sight, but on closer inspection are photographs of female genitalia; an ironic reference to the putti that appear in traditional religious art. A lump of dried, varnished elephant dung forms one bared breast, and the painting is displayed leaning against the gallery wall, supported by two other lumps of elephant dung, decorated with coloured pins: the pins on the left are arranged to spell out “Virgin” and the one on the right “Mary.”
The art-critic/mayor went bats over the “sick” painting. He tried to withdraw the City’s $7 million grant to the museum and kick it out of its venerable building on Eastern Parkway. He raged against the elephant poop angle and insults against the Virgin. Others took up the case and the painting was defaced with white paint during the exhibit. The Brooklyn Museum fought back and kept its site and the exhibit.
Fast-forward 15 years. Giuliani has long since moved to the private sector but retains his distinctive aesthetic sense. He gave his views another airing this fall when the Metropolitan Opera performed “The Death of Klinghoffer.” First performed in 1991, the opera still makes waves with protests, impassioned letters and all the social media required to launch a high-profile controversial event in New York. I haven’t it or heard the music, so I’ll withhold judgment on its artistic merits.
Giuliani, opera buff, wrote a piece in the Daily Beast, “Why I Protested ‘The Death of Klinghoffer,'” that took a different tone from what he did as mayor. He made clear the Met Opera had the First Amendment right to perform Klinghoffer, just as protesters had a right to speak out. He even appeared at public demonstrations against it. His analysis of the opera balanced the positive and the negative:
As an opera fan of some 57 years, I find the opera and view the music as a significant achievement. I own a CD, have heard it, and have read the libretto three or four times.
As an opera, the music and choruses are quite excellent. John Adams is one of America’s greatest composers, and I admire and enjoy his music.
However, as a story attempting to recount the appalling terrorist murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a man who was thrown into the Mediterranean Sea simply because he was Jewish, the opera is factually inaccurate and extraordinarily damaging to an appropriate description of the problems in Israel and Palestine, and of terrorism in general.
Giuliani’s tone and thoughtfulness won the praise of Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Forward newspaper. Through gritted teeth, she wrote an editorial piece titled, “How Rudy Giuliani Got ‘Klinghoffer’ Right.” Both his writing and his style of civil protest worked for her, showing that the lion really can lie down with the lamb under the right circumstances.
Giuliani’s changed approach–from the mayoral menace against Madonna to the reasonable First Amendment views on Klinghoffer–showed a welcome evolution. Unable to pull the levers of mayoral power, Giuliani opted for an approach I like. Let the public speak out, weigh the situation, and decide. If only he had taken that stance with The Holy Virgin Mary, I might have never heard of or remembered Ofili’s work..
But remember I did, and when I finally stood face to face with The Holy Virgin Mary, I liked it, along with Ofili’s other works. He has a great stylistic range, from the small to the huge. A fan of more representational art like me can appreciate his work. Not being Catholic, I lacked the visceral anger that Giuliani and others felt. Still, I’m sensitive to issues of faith and I didn’t see the work as disrespectful, but coming from a specific cultural context. Not every Madonna need resemble 15th century Italian paintings. It hung there as one more large of piece of art in a major retrospective, with nobody bent out of shape about the style or message..
I did feel some surprise that some feminists didn’t protest the art. Besides the Madonna and a clump of dung (which Ofili uses in many other of his works), the piece has dozens of cut-outs from photos of female genitalia (think Kim Kardashian without the inhibitions) floating like fleshy butterflies on the canvas. In today’s superheated atmosphere of microaggressions, that aspect of the painting must count as off-putting. But I never found any complaints.
People and their perceptions can change. Giuliani grew from the Scourge of Eastern Parkway to the Champion of the First Amendment. The Holy Virgin Mary went from transgressive to acceptable (to most people, anyway). Apart from the security guard, it hangs peacefully and unobtrusively in the New Museum. Perhaps those so upset in 1999 have moved on to other issues, or they came to understand what Ofili was aiming for, or they just didn’t want to raise a ruckus.
Will Klinghoffer ever reach that status? I doubt the opera will have an impact one way or another on anti-semitism or sympathy for Klinghoffer’s killers. With time, however, the protests in New York may move more in the Holy Virgin Mary direction. If I were the team behind the opera, however, I would never want the pot to completely stop bubbling — a little rage goes a long way toward putting fannies in the theater seats. After writing about the opera, I may even try to get my hands on a recording and see what all the fuss is about.