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

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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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