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Mark Ryden, “Rosie’s Tea Party” (2005) (all images courtesy Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art)

Members of a Virginia arts commission are calling a pair of Mark Ryden paintings blasphemous and threatening to slash funding for the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) for including them in a forthcoming show. The offending works are the pop-surrealist artist’s “Fountain” (2003) and “Rosie’s Tea Party” (2005), which both show young, doll-like girls in unsettling scenes: In the former, a figure cradles her own head as blood springs from her neck; in the latter, a girl is surrounded by an assortment of meats and slicing a hunk of ham inscribed with the papal encyclical “Mystici corporis Christi.” The paintings go on view starting this weekend as part of Turn the Page: The First Ten Years of Hi-Fructose, a retrospective celebrating the artworks that have appeared in the pages of the San Francisco–based contemporary art magazine. Besides Ryden, artists showcased include Kehinde Wiley, Olek, and Shepard Fairey.

As WAVY reported, Ben Loyola of the Virginia Beach Arts and Humanities Commission described the works as “very anti-Christian and anti-Catholic” after receiving a brief on the exhibition.

Mark Ryden, “Fountain” (2003) (click to enlarge)

“Look at this, she’s got a saw in her hand cutting off a piece of ham with the words on the ham ‘Corpus Christi.’ That is Latin for body of Christ, and the ham is dropping down and eaten by rats,” Loyola reportedly said of “Rosie’s Tea Party.” He also noted that a bottle of wine bears a label printed with an image of Jesus and that the girl is wearing a first communion dress and a necklace of a cross.

Of “Fountain,” Loyola said, “She is holding the severed head, and blood is spraying up and showering her in blood. Is this what we are subsidizing at MOCA?” According to a column in the Virginian-Pilot that also describes the Rydens as “profoundly anti-Catholic,” Commissioner Brian Kirwin said that he would “definitely consider zeroing [MOCA] out” by cutting future funding.

MOCA spokeswoman Dot Greene told Hyperallergic that the commission grants the museum $120,000 annually “to support hard cost exhibition expenses” — just 6% of its roughly $2 million operating budget. As per a press release, the National Endowment for the Arts had also supplied $20,000 to fund Turn the Page, which is MOCA’s largest exhibition to date.

MOCA curators Alison Byrne and Heather Hakimzadeh told Hyperallergic that Ryden has been the most featured cover artist over Hi-Fructose‘s 10-year history, so choosing his paintings simply made sense. Aside from the two that are drawing ire, Byrne and Hakimzadeh also selected the artist’s “The Meat Train” (2000).

“We do not find the work anti-Christian,” Greene wrote in an email. “We recognize there are Christian symbols depicted in ‘Rosie’s Tea Party’ along with a myriad of others. Symbolism and religious iconography in art have a long and storied history, all of which are up for personal interpretation.

“We naturally had a pretty negative reaction in hearing that two members of the Commission wish to withhold future funding … However, the two men who have spoken out against this painting are representing their personal opinion and not that of the Commission. We value the hard work and longstanding relationships we have cultivated with the Commission and City Council, who believe we are an asset and an economic driver to the City.”

The museum has also received a number of phone calls and emails over the past few days from people calling for it to remove the paintings. The backlash presumably stems from Catholic leaders breeding outrage within their community: This week, the Lepanto Institute for the Restoration of All Things in Christ published a post asking readers to contact the museum regarding such “outright blasphemy and mockery of the Catholic faith.” Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, also penned a public letter to MOCA Executive Director Debi Gray, with a constructive “suggestion”:

Why not substitute a young Muslim girl in a hijab, wearing a machete around her neck, cutting a piece of ham with the words, “Allahu Akbar” inscribed on it. In place of Jesus in the wine bottle, display a picture of Muhammad. And yes, please keep the blood.

When Muslims complain, tell them that “Art is intended to be controversial,” and “Someone ought to poke fun at those Muslims anyway.”

Please be sure to let me know the outcome.

MOCA confirmed that it has no plans to remove the painting. Greene said the public petitioning is “a first for our institution and certainly not the intent of this exhibition. We do, however, welcome the dialogue that is being created, which speaks directly to our mission.”

Yesterday, the museum also heard from the New York–based National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). The advocacy nonprofit has written its own public letter to Loyola and Kirwin to let them know that withholding funding would be a violation of First Amendment rights.

“As government officials, you cannot use your power to control public money so as to impose your interpretation of the work on the community as a whole and discriminate against ideas with which you disagree,” NCAC’s Director of Programs Svetlana Mintcheva wrote.

The suggestion that you may work to cut future funding to MOCA as punishment for exhibiting art that you dislike raises serious First Amendment concerns. While totalitarian and undemocratic societies have suppressed art and demonized artists, burned heretics and tortured dissenters, I hope you will agree that we are fortunate to be living in a country where the use of religious symbols in art, whether approved by church dogma or not, is protected under the First Amendment. The government cannot suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, nor can it suppress works of art said to be “offensive, sacrilegious, morally improper or dangerous.” Contrary to what you appear to believe, government officials are also barred from using the power of the purse to discriminate against art based on the viewpoint expressed in it.

Hyperallergic has reached out to Paul Kasmin Gallery, which represents Ryden, but has not received a response. Greene noted that the artist does not like to discuss the symbolism of his works, saying “any direct attribution to symbols he employs is pure conjecture.” But in his 2006 interview with Hi-Fructose, in which Ryden says “Rosie’s Tea Party” portrays his daughter Rosie, he offers: “I am really not poking fun at religion. I am just looking at it in different ways.

“Someone ought to poke fun at those Christians, though,” he adds. “They are the ones responsible for putting that evil clown [George W. Bush] in the White House.”

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

47 replies on “Virginia Arts Commissioners Threaten to Defund Museum Over “Anti-Christian” Paintings”

  1. Arts main objective is to provoke mental stimulus and an emotional response, be it wonder, fear, happiness, disgust, or anger. Then people can discuss and argue points and ideals that the Art evoked.

    I often hear how the “Christians” are being oppressed and ‘Put Apon’… Can someone please show me where they are being kept from practicing their religious beliefs? Show me where in the Constitution it states that Christians should dictate who can see or do something that they take offense to?

    The Crusades ended centuries ago, the only thing that came out of them was hate and death. Maybe it’s time to reassess the tax-exempt status of all religious groups within the United States! If they want to dictate policy to others outside of their church, sect, cult,or coven… they should pay their share of taxes that most people pay.. What’s that old saying?, “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is!”

      1. Such a witty comment…now you can feel all proud of yourself for that remark…. Nice name BTW, though I’m thinking it should have been Whiner instead of Warrior. Plan on coal for your Christmas present this year…

        1. Ah, come on, Joe, laugh at yourself — after all, BW IS “dead nuts on”, you really do look like Santa Claus. Her comment is purely complimentary.

  2. a little censorship with your morning coffee. i have an idea, get off your high horse. its art and its meant to be provocative . art all thru time has been

  3. A few thoughts:
    1. “She is holding the severed head, and blood is spraying up and showering her in blood. Is this what we are subsidizing at MOCA?” Ever look at Renaissance and Baroque painting? The Flaying of Marsalis? Judith Beheading Holoferns? Get over it.

    2. Even if the paintings are “profoundly anti Catholic, ” the MOCA is not your church.

    3. On the other hand:
    “Contrary to what you appear to believe, government officials are also barred from using the power of the purse to discriminate against art based on the viewpoint expressed in it.” No, don’t kid yourselves. Once the government funds an art venue, officials have the power to barr whatever they like – as long as they hold an influential enough position and/or can gather enough support to exclude the thing they wish. Complete freedom from censorship is fiction. Especially when the government is involved.

    4. ….and…
    “Why not substitute a young Muslim girl in a hijab, wearing a machete around her neck, ” True, skewering Islam is a lot less trendy than skewering Christianity, and a right bit more risky!

    5. I imagine Martin Luther, with his rather ribald sense of humor and decidedly non Catholic ideas on the Eucharist, would have loved “Rosie’s Tea Party.”
    Interesting space in that painting BTW, partly because of the bizarre frame.

    1. Its not so much that skewering Islam is a lot less trendy, but that Islam does not dominate our nation or impact most of our lives unlike the openly christian culture that surrounds us all.

    2. It’s not that skewering Islam is or is not trendy. It’s that a violent response to art from one extremist does not excuse censorship from other, more tolerant and civilized sources. Really, is that how the Catholic Church wants to be seen, Mr Donahue, as threatening as fanatical Islam?

    3. No, he wouldn’t, because he was a firm believer in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and would have regarded this as just as blasphemous as the Catholics (or “papists,” as he would call them) do. On one occasion, when he was distributing communion, he accidentally spilled some on the floor, and his response was to place the cup back on the altar and to kneel down and lick the wine up like a dog, so that the Sacrament would not be profaned.

  4. The group behind this manufactured outrage, as stated in the article, is the Lepanto Institute for the Restoration of All Things in Christ, which, if you check out their website, they say that Catholicism is currently under attack by forces “in the form of armies, heretics, or traitors”. They appear to consider any activity outside of their narrow view of Christianity an assault on their worldview which must be fought and extinguished. Among their enemies list are the United Nations, including UNICEF, Oxfam, Care International, Africare, and of course, Planned Parenthood. They’re even ranting on commies in the Vatican. http://www.lepantoinstitute.org/sustainable-development-goals/vatican-pushing-communist-goals/
    These extremists will do everything they can to stop free expression of ideas and they really, really hate family planning.

  5. That is Latin for body of Christ, and the ham is dropping down and eaten by rats,” Loyola reportedly said of “Rosie’s Tea Party.”

    Those are ferrets, you dummy.

  6. not sure why they had to bring religion into this. they could have easily barred the paintings on the grounds of being exceedingly tacky, which is manifestly true of these paintings.

    1. Thanks for stating your opinion on the paintings. However that’s all it is…YOUR opinion.

        1. Firstly, because I felt like it. Some people are arrogant enough to think that just because THEY deem something to be “tacky”, it’s thought to be universally tacky. They can only see things from their point of view, just like the two men who are protesting the presence of these paintings in the exhibition. I happen to know this artist’s work and have always liked the the work and feel that it’s “Dali-esque” in a contemporary and darkly humorous sort of way. I’m sure there were people in Dali’s time who thought that he was a blasphemer as well, yet no on bats an eye at his paintings today. When I go to a museum I often see many works that I don’t like and think at tacky, but I fee that it’s just my opinion and would never say that just because I don’t like those works they don’t have a right to be shown. Get over yourselves.

          1. can’t get over myself – my ego is an insurmountable summit of unalloyed truth and wisdom. these paintings blow donkey btw

          2. seriously these are hot trash they look like what would happen if tim burton directed a sequel to the bratz dolls movie

      1. I understand very well what the reality is. It’s rhetorical question, one that needs to continue to be asked and answered.

  7. another disgusting example of liberals forcing their hateful agenda on the rest of us. It is time to take America back to when Christians were respected, not ridiculed. We can do this through the legislative process with Trump as our leader. God will smile on us again when this nation begins obeying God’s law.
    .
    Enforce God’s Laws – Vote Republican!

  8. First of all, that “reporter” should just report what is going on without his, quite obvious, religious take on the issue. Then, art if “in the eye of the beholder” and a museum should be able to display all types with all views without having the religious right demanding that they be able to determine what is and is not appropriate. Look at what is displayed at museums all over the world – much of what would never be allowed in our moralistic, puritanical country. They protest too much because of their dirty and religious brainwashed minds.

  9. Arts is a piece of thought made menifest, however some thoughts just need to remain inside the brain, or the mind or some innermost dark recess. Once taken out to the public, some thoughts become nauseating, irritating and offensive. No need to expose some things that people cant consume.

    1. But people should be able to make the decision whether they can “consume” it or not. Why censor for the unconsumable and deprive the rest of the audience? Ryden is a modern master whether one can digest his art or not.

    2. You are referring to self censorship, something that probably just about everyone does at some point, sometimes for good reason, sometimes not. This is a free speech issue.

      Kenan Malik has some good thoughts on this. His comment of “My speech should be free, but yours is too costly” is right on:

      The old saw, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”applies. Or, if we are hurt, it is our responsibility to react in a reasonable way.

      Was it Voltaire who said something like, “I disagree with what you said, but I will defend your right to say it.”?

    3. Like the thoughts of all the intellectuals Stalin threw in gulags?

      Martin Luther King? Malcolm X?

      Thomas Paine?

      Galileo?

      Jesus Christ, perhaps.

      We’d all be happier if we just kept our mouths (ears, eyes, minds) closed, eh?

      Just let the town idiots and thieves bully everyone in to silence.

      That’s the ticket.

  10. As though Christianity is the ONLY game in town! Elitism at its sickest extreme, as usual with insecure extremists. Always has been, always will!

  11. Sorry Virginia Arts Commission, free speech means free speech with no qualifiers. You may object, and I will defend your right to do so.

  12. I presume that the VAC is a state organization. We have a separation of church and state in this country. Let’s keep it that way. This is simply authoritarianism at its finest.

    If this vile nonsense on the part of the VAC should be vigorously resisted. What is the essential difference between them and Muslims who throw temper tantrums when Mohammed is depicted?

  13. People can support the art they want to support. I admire any person willing to make their worldview a holistic part of his/her life without compartmentalizing it—it is an act of integrity of person. Not all art has to be supported by all people.

  14. What a joke. Are Ryden’s paintings blasphemous? Hell yes! His paintings ask us to question our values. Aside from the ridiculousness of a religion dictating what can be viewed in art, the paintings above are some of the LEAST blasphemous of Ryden’s work!

  15. The Taliban or Virginia Arts Commission…? I’m getting them mixed up now…

  16. So as a nation we are to worry deeply about offending all people. It is wrong to bully, it is wrong to stereotype, it is wrong to say or do things that make others feel bad. We have to have safe spaces, we cannot compliment those of the opposite sex for fear of being sexist, we must remember by threat of violent protests that black lives matter, we must be politically correct in every instance so as to be inclusive of ALL people.
    Except apparently in this case. Apparently any Christian or Catholic who may be offended by this “art” has to just shut the F up and take it, right? And if they do ask for equal consideration they must be mocked and belittled? How very enlightened of you all.

  17. With the false prophet Trump , saying his a Christian , all these people are lunatics and hate a a free mind ??????

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