Furor over painting reveals conflicted attitudes towards the body, sexuality
By GEORGE WILSON
Dung. Female genitalia. The Virgin Mary. Each of these images, all by itself, can evoke powerful movements in the spirits of American Catholics. Juxtaposing them in the same physical presentation at the Brooklyn Museum of Art was sure to set off at least a minor explosion.
The reality is that, for all its emotional shock, the painting may actually provide what religious educators call a teachable moment. We need first to lower the level of the rhetoric and begin by asking some very direct questions.
First, is the painting obscene, as many (including some church leaders) have charged? Simply put, no. Obscenity, as the term is used in moral theology, turns on whether a particular depiction incites its viewer to illicit sexuality.
There are graphic representations of female sexual anatomy in the painting, but I submit that no one would find these detached, free-floating images sexually stimulating. There is more possibility of illicit stimulation in much of what passes for harmless advertising in our society than in Chris Ofilis work. We may not be used to graphic presentations of labia; some may be disturbed by them, but that does not make them obscene.
Moral theologians distinguish between the genuinely scandalous -- that which directly incites to sinful behavior -- and what they nicely refer to as scandalum pusillanimorum, which might be freely translated as that which is shocking to the faint of heart. They are hardly the same thing. So lets agree that the painting may be shocking or disturbing or disorienting to some or perhaps many. It is not obscene. (Unless obscene is simply a high-decibel synonym for deeply upsetting; but in that case the language provides no help for critical assessment, simply shutting it off.)
Those who charge the painting with being obscene have the burden of explaining why the exhibit caused no uproar at all in Great Britain. The English, Catholics and Anglicans alike, are quite capable of outrage over sexual matters. Did they just miss the point? Doesnt the dramatic difference in the two responses compel us to dig a little deeper, to discover the possible origins of the hyper-American reaction?
Perhaps the work may not be obscene in the technical sense, but dont we have to conclude that it is sacrilegious or blasphemous? Doesnt it attack a holy icon of our faith? Or to adopt the rhetoric of another segment of our leaders, isnt it a part of a concerted campaign to denigrate Roman Catholicism?
Those who would level such charges must explain what Ofili, who is a believing Roman Catholic, would have to gain by attacking his own tradition. It would seem more probable that he sincerely believes his work conveys some truth about Mary to him and to those viewers willing to work at understanding what he is trying to capture. Whether or not, measured in artistic terms, he is successful is a different issue, one for the critics. But should not a balanced critique first ask what he is trying to convey, before immediately convicting him of blasphemy?
But the dung! And the genitalia! How can they possibly express esteem and honor for the mother of God?
Now we are getting closer to the issue and to the possibility of some serious religious education, the teachable moment. To approach the matter from a religious perspective, I presume that as Christians we need to turn to our foundation, the teaching of Jesus. Does the work stand in opposition to what Jesus was about?
If we are to reach a possible new insight into the teaching of Jesus, we need first to examine what people are really naming when they declare their revulsion at the use of dung and genital organs in a work focused on Mary. Do we Catholics really believe dung and genitalia are dirty? (For if we listen carefully to the commentary of the attackers, that is what is coming through.) And if so, is that what the Christian view of human sexuality and the body is all about? Is that what we want to transmit to our youth?
To answer such questions we need first to uncover within ourselves any vestiges of the Monophysite heresy condemned by our church in the momentous Council of Chalcedon. If I may bypass the technical language of its decree, the point is that Jesus was not some divine essence, but rather that he was fully human. Any presentation of his divinity that waters down or denies the full implications of that truth is heretical.
Jesus humanity, like ours, was situated within the Israelite people, and their culture shaped his existence on our earth. His prayer forms, his images, his language, the rituals that shaped his consciousness, all the stuff within which he made his choices and became the uniquely individuated man he eventually revealed in the laying down of his life came out of that culture.
Once we take seriously the full humanity of Jesus and its roots in the culture of his people, a new possibility emerges: Perhaps the disgust that people are expressing does not have its origins in Jesus view of life but rather in strains of thought not only different from but even quite opposed to the mentality he brought to his earthly journey.
In the Jewish world that was the matrix of his development we are confronted with a world-view that is diametrically opposed to the body-disdaining and sexuality-denigrating view that would hold that dung or a womans genitals are in any way objects to be viewed as dirty or degrading. The Hebrew world-view was grounded in the dignity and goodness of the physical, including all aspects of the body, and including its sexuality.
If we examine critically the beliefs that occasion feelings of disgust at the portrayal of the sexual character of the human body or the products of metabolism and elimination, we will find that their origins are quite unchristian. They are grounded in Manichean or Stoic world-views that have no foundation in scripture. They have cropped up across the ages to distort the goodness of all aspects of creation, proclaimed by Jesus as the raw material of Gods reign
In Ofilis culture, elephant dung is not something to be scorned but rather a profound symbol of life, vitality and our dependence on the nourishment coming from our earth. Without that precious dung, the soil of his land would be depleted and made barren. (It is worth noting that in the descriptions of the painting the material is quite accurately referred to as dung, after all; it is not called shit, an ugly expression characteristic of our asphalt culture.) Dung is a natural product of vital processes, created and used by God in the great mystery of life. A womans genital organs play an important role in the transmission of that same incredible gift. Why not ponder the mystery of life and vitality and procreation represented in the rich mystery of Mary, the mystery of our ground in the fertility of this lovely earth, instead of construing the work as disgusting?
Which takes us to what could be another unacknowledged motivation: It may be OK for Ofili (and those African tribals) to use those kinds of symbols in their world; we just dont want them in ours. Honest self-criticism should make us consider at least the possibility that unacknowledged racial chauvinism could be lurking at the edges. It would not be the first time that deep plague came on stage dressed in lofty religious garb.
The whole situation reminds me of an event that took place in the Tyrol shortly after World War II. An artist was commissioned to paint a mural of the crucifixion on the wall of a small church in the hills above Innsbruck. When it was unveiled, the soldiers and bystanders at the crucifixion were clothed in Tyrolean garb. The audacity of that painter, to suggest that the good folk of the Tyrol might be contributing by their actions to the contemporary crucifixion of Jesus! The outrage was such that the painting had to be covered for 10 years.
Because people didnt want to deal with the deep feelings of revulsion and shame at their personal responsibility, which the mural was asking them to confront, a rich potential for conversion was lost. So, too, in the present case. It would be sad if we allow perfectly understandable feelings to close off a graced opportunity for critical reflection on the full implications of the Good News and the kinds of conversion to which it calls us.
Jesuit Fr. George Wilson is an ecclesiologist who does church organizational consulting out of Cincinnati.
National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 1999