A computer-edited photo collage by Los Angeles artist Alma López triggered a heated controversy in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For our press release, click here. On May 23, 2001, the Museum of New Mexico Committee on Sensitive Materials recommended that the work remain on display. We congratulate the Committee’s decision and applaud the Museum’s responsible way of handling the controversy through public programming and discussions where all sides were able to express their positions. It is regretful, however, that as a compromise the duration of the whole exhibit was shortened by several months. We hope that this action will not set a pattern of compromise where the desire to avoid conflict trumps the right of artists to express unpopular ideas and the right of the audience to see challenging work.
Background: “Our Lady,” the piece which some members of the Santa Fe Catholic community found offensive, is a digital photograph representing the Virgin of Guadalupe. While familiar Guadalupe imagery is present?the rays of light, the cloak, the roses, the crescent moon, the angel?the virgin herself is represented by a photograph of a friend of the artist, hands on her hips and head raised, her robe open and revealing rose-laden undergarments. The angel below is represented by a topless woman, arms outstretched and butterfly wings extending from her shoulders and breasts. According to the artist, the idea was to portray the virgin as a strong and nurturing woman very much like the women in the community Alma López grew up in. You can see the work at her website. The controversial piece is part of Cyber Arte: Where Tradition Meets Technology (through October 28, 2001), an exhibition featuring computer-inspired work by contemporary Hispana/Chicana/Latina artists, who combine elements traditionally defined as “folk” with current computer technology to create a new aesthetic.
Critics, including Roman Catholic Archbishop Michael Sheehan, have called the piece insulting and sacrilegious and called for its removal from the museum.
So far museum officials have said they have no intention of pulling López’s piece. Gov. Gary Johnson has also spoken in defense of free expression: “For those that are opposed to the painting, I respect their views on it. They don’t have to go see it. For those that are standing up and vociferously voicing their opinion that … this is free speech, (that’s) their right also.” The governor observed: “If you take it down, then where do you draw the line on the next piece of art?”
Even though we regret the decision to remove the exhibit in October?several months before its scheduled closing in February?we support the museum and the responsible way in which the controversy was handled. We applaud their ability to find a way to both hear the position of those protesting and also to stand by the free expression rights of the artist by leaving her work on display.
A critique of religious beliefs frequently provokes an extreme emotional reaction of offense or anger. However, there are many ways to express this reaction, which do not entail going against the founding principles of the United States: the separation of church and state and the right to free speech. In fact, as early as 1952 the U.S. Supreme Court held that the constitutional guarantee of free speech and press prevents a state from banning a film on the basis of a censor’s conclusion that it is sacrilegious. That decision would equally apply to art that is felt to be blasphemous.
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