The Shock of The Not-So-New

by David Scott

Why is it that when artists today want to be edgy and transgressive, they always pick Christian symbols to desecrate? In recent years, we’ve seen crucifixes plunged in urine and the portrayals of Jesus having sex with his apostles. 

Now the Brooklyn Museum of Art is displaying the “shocking” image of a Madonna festooned with real elephant dung and bare male and female buttocks cut out from porn magazines. Isn’t this getting a little old? How come we never see the Koran suspended in formaldehyde or a Star of David hung around a dead shellfish? 

“The Holy Virgin Mary” by Chris Ofili
“The Holy Virgin Mary” by Chris Ofili

Not that we’re advocating any of these bald expressions of artistic license. We’re old–fashioned. We think art should be about the human search for truth, beauty and God in a fallen world. We’re all for art that shakes up our sensibilities and helps us see things in a new light. 

But an exhibit involving a defiled Madonna, barnyard animal cadavers, bodily fluids, images of serial killers, and children with engorged genitalia? That’s not cutting edge. That’s the portrait of the soul of a tired and overfed bourgeoisie. That, or the locker room jokes of a bunch of teenage boys. 

The exhibit, called “Sensation,” cost $1 million to mount, and is drawn from works in the private collection of London advertising magnate Charles Saatchi. Every word you read or hear about this exhibit increases the net worth of Saatachi’s collection, which is why you’re reading and hearing so many words about it. 

While the New York art world and the civil-liberties crowd is all atwitter over Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s threats to cut off state funding for the Brooklyn Museum, Saatchi is laughing all the way to the bank. 

So is Chris Ofili, the 30–year–old British creator of the grotesque “The Holy Virgin Mary.” He says the dung is a symbol of new life, and his work is a “hip-hop” expression of traditional Marian art, which he says is “sexually charged.” OK. But it’s also about greenbacks. It’s about Ofili building his reputation as a “transgressive” artist so that he can sell his works at a higher price to private collectors like Satacchi, or win bigger cash awards and government subsidies.

That’s why Ofili’s press releases always include lines about him being a Catholic and a former altar boy. People pay more if they know they’re buying something religiously transgressive from a Catholic. 

Attacking symbols Catholics hold dear? Old hat. A multi-millionaire ad exec spinning the wheels of hype to boost his fortune? That’s America. A bunch of people living off the government dole and adopting the air of privileged entitlement? Sanctimonious governmentsubsidized artists and museums are no different than any corporatewelfare mooch in this regard. 

What would be really radical and cuttingedge would be to pull the plug on public financing of the Brooklyn Museum. If this is such great art, then surely the museum can find enough enlightened art lovers to pony up the money needed for the show to go on. 

At a time when many hard–working people in this country are juggling more than one job to make ends meet, the blasphemy here is that these same people are expected to fork over their tax dollars to support such an exercise in excrement.

Originally published in Our Sunday Visitor (October 10, 1999)
© David Scott, 2003. All rights reserved.