Sunday, February 17, 2002
'Our Lady' Court Order Hogties Art Museums
By Peter Eller
Art Appraiser and Writer
It is to be hoped that District Court Judge James Hall's
recent approval of a court order proclaiming a museum committee to have been
in violation of the Open Meetings Act by not holding hearings prior to displaying
Alma Lopez's image of the Virgin of Guadalupe will not stand up to rigorous
challenge. It is a bad ruling and unworkable as either public or administrative
The Museum of Folk Art in Santa Fe came under fire last year
when it included the flowered bathing suit-clad image in the traditional Virgin
of Guadalupe surrounding of radiating rays.
Though the exhibit has been down for some time, its repercussions
continue in the court case - and in the state Legislature, where several House
members requested a review of the statutes governing the Office of Cultural
Affairs and its compliance with the Open Meetings Act.
The idea that the museum "should have given public notice
and a public hearing" before displaying the image, based on the notion
that the latter constitutes cultural and religious material, clearly hogties
any museum and its staff. The real issue is of course what can be considered
culturally or religiously sensitive material - and that is an issue that can
often not be determined until after the fact.
No one here criticizes the individual's right to speak out
against Lopez's image or to refuse to see it. But to put in motion a court
order to hold museum staff hostage, in effect forcing them prejudicially to
anticipate public opinion and its varying sensitivity to cultural or religious
material, brings about de facto censorship.
Hall's ruling jeopardizes the current ways and means to display
art in public places or to display publicly supported art. If a wisp of eagle
down is culturally or religiously sensitive, we will, under the terms of this
order, need hearings on the public display of kachinas. If a conquistador's
spur or lance is culturally sensitive, we will need hearings on 17th century
Spanish armor. If dragons, St. Michael will soon become suspect and require
In the end, of course, there is the issue of the image itself,
and the degree or source of its presumed offensiveness.
As I remember doctrinal history, the point of the movement
on behalf of Mary as it evolved from the Middle Ages was to give a visibly
female element, and thereby further to humanize, a previously, presumptively
male Christianity and Catholicism. In the process, certain objections had
to be overcome, chief of which was that the inclusion of so powerful a female
figure as Mary, Mother of Christ as well as the God in Christ, would once
more have given support to heathen cults of female deities, mainly the Roman
goddess, Diana, who was also linked with Astarte, an earlier goddess of fertility
and sexual love.
Iconographically, therefore, the triumph of the new movement
to feminize and humanize expressed itself in images in which the older, demonic
aspects and images of fertility and sexual love were obscured.
Doctrinally and iconographically, this provided a neat solution
to what had at one time appeared an insurmountable dilemma. The "sensitive
issues" of sexual love and fertility, which could not be entirely repressed
or banished in any attempt to introduce a wholly valid female element into
doctrinal Christianity and the imagery it sanctioned, were in fact given a
subordinate and "conquered" place.
In her image, Lopez has explicitly pulled away the metaphorical
veil that traditionally has kept the more overt female attributes of the Virgin
subliminal and hidden. Whether veiled by metaphor, discreetly represented
by a downtrodden, crescent moon, or made explicit in the pose of a frankly
confident femininity, the elements are there, offensive to some, yet representative
of our humanity to others.
Either way, they are part of the doctrine and iconography of Christianity since the Middle Ages. One therefore finds it more than a little frightening that some people should willfully seek to go back to a more frail and one-sided, male-oriented Christian ethos from before that time. The problem with too rigorous or reactionary a formalism is that its proponents sometimes end up quashing the very qualities or virtues they wish to protect. This seems to be the case here. Perhaps it is time to revisit and undo before such a clear and present danger to our cultural well-being and our civil freedoms becomes further institutionalized in our thinking about Mary, Virgin and Mother of God, whose progenitive qualities are mercy and forgiveness.
Peter Eller runs the Peter Eller Gallery and writes on colonial and modern Hispanic religious art in New Mexico. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org