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Created: January 28, 2001
Latest update: January 28, 2001
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Displays of Power

Review Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Part of Peacemaking Identity Series
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, January 2001. "Fair Use" encouraged.

This essay is based on Steven C. Dubin's Displays of Power: Controversy in the American Museum from the Enola Gay to Sensation. New York University Press. 1999. ISBN: 0-8147-1890-6 (pbk.).

Essay on transformative approaches to replacement discourse and critical theory, based on newsmaking sociology, on museum controversies, as they reflect cultural controversies.

I was first attracted to Dubin's text by his title: Displays of Power. The ease with which we slip into displays of power is distressing to those of us who are trying to reinstitute a climate of mutuality and caring for justice. We all have problems with power. Once we have negotiated the rapids of the educational system, we, educators, forget the the difficulties, and expect our students to fare far better than we ourselves were able to. Dubin highlights the way this happens in our museums, and I hope that through discussing his stories and examples we may be able to more accurately recognize the instances in which similar things happen in the academy.

Because of my specific concern with the newsmaking possibilities for transforming dominant discourse, I started with Dubin's "Afterword: When Elephants Fight: How Sensation Became Sensational," pp. 246-275. In this section Dubin analyzes the debacle at the Brooklyn Museum of Art when Mayor Giuliani threatened to withdraw public funds from the museum for what he deemed a "Catholic bashing" and controversial painting of the Holy Virgin Mary. The controversy escalated over censorship, and words like "hate speech" were bandied about. (Ibid. at p. 247.)

There were several aspects of the painting which triggered furious debate, but the primary factor was that the painting was described (inaccurately, as it turns out, according to Dubin) as having been "'smeared,' 'spattered,' 'splattered,' 'smattered,' and 'stained' with elephant dung." (Ibid. at p. 265.) This was interpreted by William Donohue, president and CEO of the Catholic League, as an insult to the Catholic Church itself, so that he interpreted it as Catholic bashing, even though the Catholic Church would seem quite powerful enough to protect itself from being effectively silenced and subjugated. (Ibid. at p. 247.)

The artist, Chris Ofili, "an artist of Nigerian heritage and winner of the prestitious Turner Prize in 1998 . . .also happens to be a practicing Roman Catholic." (Ibid. at pp. 248-9.) "The Amsterdam News, New York City's best-known black newspaper," described Ofili's painting thus:

"Ofili portrays Mary as a rather exciting Black with impressive eyes, a hint of breast upon which a piece of dung has been placed, signifying nourishment, the color of darkness, a broad nose and a sensuousness not generally assumed when one sees the Eurocentric version of Mother Mary . . . . We believe that his [Giuliani's] sensibilities were shocked by the belief that Mother Mary happened to be some color other than the color that he has accepted for everything that is good and pure and right and white." (Ibid. at pp. 248-9.)

Protesters were most offended by the dung, excrement which sullied the Virgin, from their perspective. One protester is reported to have said: "I know what the Virgin Mary looks like, and that is nowhere near a resemblance." (Ibid. at pp. 251.) One wonders how the protester managed to know how the Virgin looks, and is reminded of Sartre's story in Existentialisme est un humanisme. One must ultimately trust ones own beliefs, for no one has the answers to such questions. Dubin even reports that some African nuns were amazed at the folderol over the dung, for they use dung in a healing poultice "to treat women suffering from inflammation of their breasts after childbirth. . . . In their experience, dung has revitalizing powers that bolster the image of the Madonna."

I am reminded of Jonathan Lear's discussions of knowingness, and our need to know. The certainty of one protester that he/she "knows" what the Virgin looks like spills over into censorship of a fellow Catholic's imaginary of the Virgin, an imaginary that not only does not shock African Christian nuns, but enhances the image they hold of the Holy Mother Mary.

Chris Ofili's work can be seen at: The Holy Virgin Mary: Ofili's Black Madonna, at the crux of the Sensation scandal at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. One priest (from Australia) who saw Ofili's Holy virgin Mary in Brooklyn said of it: "[It] shimmers,it's elegant . . . it makes you think." (Ibid. at pp. 259.) And two more of Ofili's paintings at

I also liked Benjamin Ivry's article on Chris Ofili, "Modern art is a load of bullshit": WHY CAN'T THE ART WORLD ACCEPT SOCIAL SATIRE FROM A BLACK ARTIST? Ivry reminds us of our tendency to categorize black artists as being alike because they are black. Yet, as Ivry notes, Bob Thompson, an African American artist, was compared to Basquiat simply because he overdosed on drugs in his 20s. Ivry suggests that Thompson's work, closer to that of Ofili,:

"cries out for analysis by someone as astutely entrenched in the Western art tradition as he himself was.

What brings creators like Thompson and Ofili together is more than their insistence on individuality, and the humor and beauty of their work; it's that they both refuse to be pigeonholed in any way."

Dubin describes the entire rigmarole surrounding the Sensation Exhibit, and concludes that the whole thing was triggered by a New York Post reporter who contacted both Donohue and Giuliana to ask their reactions to the Holy Virgin Mary, thus inciting the rancor that was used politically for causes other than art. Dubin traces the growing awareness of the art museums that they are subjugated by political power, and their attempts to deal with being turned into convenient pawns. All of this brings us back to Gregg Barak's discussion of the role that the media could play in transforming the dominant discourse in crime and justice. Perhaps with sufficiently good reporting, as Dubin engages in here, we coul engage also in newsmaking exhibition history, and transform the dominant discourse in aesthetics.