The perpetrators change-in 1990 it was Mapplethorpe in Cincinnati, now it's Ofili in Brooklyn-but throughout this decade, when religious protesters have attacked profane movies, plays, or art exhibitions, they have walked right into a media trap.
The typical ploy is to put forth a "work of art" calculated particularly to outrage traditional Catholics (and sometimes evangelicals), who will respond on cue by demanding that the outrage be removed. At the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Oct. 2 opening of an exhibition featuring a dung-and-pornography-bedecked painting of "The Holy Virgin Mary" provoked a demonstration by 200 Catholic League supporters who passed out complimentary vomit bags.
Several different story lines could have come out of this faceoff. As Ed Veith notes on page 34, Rudy Giuliani asked correctly why taxpayers should pay big bucks to subsidize the profane tastes of a few. When the New York mayor announced that his administration would take the museum off the dole, leading newspapers dutifully quoted him. But by the day after the opening, a different spin had emerged.
The Associated Press roundup story on Oct. 3 began by noting that the opening attracted a record 9,200 museum lovers and gawkers, with the first person quoted as saying, "Rudy got me here. I was interested in seeing this after what he said." In case we missed the point, AP quoted another interviewee saying, "The mayor did me a favor. If he kept his mouth shut, I never would have heard of this show."
Then it was time to depict the protest: "The chants of protesters reciting the 'Hail Mary' echoed across the museum's plaza.... One grim-faced man brandished a sign that read, 'Hitler Was Right When He Got Rid of Degenerate Art.'" After more about protesters "praying the rosary," AP quoted William Donohue, the gutsy Catholic League president, saying, "This is not art."
That comment was the writer's transition to the third section of his article, which quoted three attendees opposing Mr. Donohue's comment. "Art should provoke discussion and controversy, and this does," said one Gareth Brown. "Let the art speak for itself," said museum director Arnold Lehman. "I'm not protesting anything," said Donald Correa, a school custodian.
Thus, a purportedly balanced AP account. The New York Times followed the formula in its page-one story on Oct. 3, except that it had the "Hitler Was Right" statement right up front where none of New York's Jewish readers could miss it. Writer David Barstow had a "Giuliani did us a favor" quotation from a museum official and quoted a "busload of women" from a Catholic church who described themselves as "soldiers of Mary ... come to her defense."
The Times writer did quote one protester saying, "The issue is the funding," but that statement was overshadowed by his full paragraph about how a man with a loudspeaker kept reciting the rosary. The Times was careful to note that "He did this for hours, so much so that some people leaving the exhibition mockingly parroted the prayer as they headed for their cars."
Articles in other newspapers also suggested that one religious group was trying to impose its morals on the general populace. The media tally: a victory for artistic freedom and the freedom of individuals to choose to go to a controversial exhibit; another loss for religious bigots and their attempt to take away choices from individuals.
Whenever media powers frame the issue that way, Christians and conservatives lose. The long-term solution (ahem) is to grow the circulation of WORLD and other publications that challenge liberal press dominance. But in the short term, as I suggested two weeks ago, Christians and conservatives need to understand that we live in a pro-choice culture, and argue accordingly.
The demonstrators played right into the choice vs. repression story. They would have been more effective by emphasizing that $7 million given to a perverse clique means that less money is available for art education in schools, or for more diverse exhibits elsewhere. They could have pointed out that government funding means less choice, not more, because it enables a small group of museum directors and their allies to decide what others will be able to see.
Also, now that this exhibit is underway, Christians should propose that the museum next year have an exhibit of contemporary art that shows reverence for the Bible. I know a few Christian artists, including Tim High, a University of Texas art professor, who would be able to lend a hand. In the book of Esther, Mordecai realized that what the king of Persia had proclaimed was irreversible, so he looked for a counterweight. We should do the same in our pro-choice culture today.