I'm sure everyone has heard the phrase, "...on the horns of a moral dilemma." Few if any of us have ever heard of Chris Ofili. Chris is 30, black, and Catholic. He's also an artist, and at the moment, one who has the New York art world quite wrapped up in the proverbial moral dilemma. Not since Robert Maplethorp has an artist's work stirred such controversy. And, as with Maplethorp, the circumstances are not all that different. Ofili is an award-winning artist from England who last year won that country's Turner Prize of $33,000 awarded to an outstanding artists under 50. The man uses elephant dung in his paintings (appropriately shellacked of course). He picked up the habit in Zimbabwe where he presumably picked up enough of the substance to last him for the time being at least. He claims it's "beautiful." Very well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The only problem is he also paints Madonnas. Okay, now we have a problem. Add to that the fact he decorates his Madonna with cutouts of human posteriors--nude posteriors-- and we have a BIG problem.
According to the Associated Press, Ofili is not Rudolph Giuliani's favorite artist. New York Cardinal John O'Conner is not especially fond of him either. Either one, in his own realm, and certainly both men together, are a force to be reckoned with in the Big Apple. Ofili's work is due to be displayed soon in the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The mayor is threatening to cut off city funding for the museum to the tune of $7 million (one-third of the museum's budget) if the show goes on. The Cardinal, not surprisingly, has added his moral support to the mayor's stand. And the American Civil Liberties Union, not surprisingly, has added theirs to the Museum, which at the moment isn't doing much standing...more like prancing around on the point of those sharp horns. And the New York art world, which prides itself on its liberality as much as it does on it's public economic support, is doing a lot of hand-wringing tonight.
The artist is making a statement regarding traditional art images of the Virgin Mary and the fact they have been "sexually charged." Historically, it's a valid point. The work has a point of view, it's well rendered, and it certainly is creative. It passes muster as art. I don't think either the good mayor or the equally good cardinal would dispute that. And few (including Giuliani and O'Conner) would dispute the fact that what their doing is a bold-faced attempted at censorship. There is of course, no law that states any government HAS to support the arts. There is, however a law against any government trying to curb free speech, and by extension, art is free speech. Unlike Maplethorp's work, no one is calling this obscene in a sexual sense. The religious obscenity is a different matter, one which presumably, no government should care about. Of course politics and government are intertwined so in fact, Giuliani cares about it very much. And so, presumably, we as artists should care about it very much too. Which brings us back to square one--the moral dilemma. IS censorship sometimes a good thing? IS moral outrage sufficient to validate censorship? IS Ofili's work a threat to public morals? IS this something you want to talk about?