WARNING: EXTREMELY GRAPHIC CONTENT
The Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art has become a new battlefield in the decades-old culture war over “obscene” and “pornographic” art and its government funding. At issue are two works by pop surrealist Mark Ryden, which were included in an exhibition that opened at MOCA on May 21.
“Rose Tea Party” (shown above) is a kitsch painting that depicts a girl cutting off a piece of ham with a Latin inscription on it reading “Corpus Christi” (body of Christ); next to the girl is a bottle of wine with an image of Christ on it. In the same series is another painting, “Fountain”, in which a girl is holding her own severed head; a fountain of blood is spraying up:
Ben Loyola, a member of the Virginia Beach Arts and Humanities Commission, has asked the Commonwealth’s Attorney, Colin Stolle, to confirm whether the art in the show should be considered obscene or pornographic. He has also threatened to slash the museum’s funding for promoting “anti-Christian” art. MOCA currently receives at least $120,000 in taxpayer money.
The museum director, Debi Grey, defends the art. “Art is intended to be controversial,” she told local media. “To some degree it’s intended to spark dialog.”
Loyola promised that on his watch there will be no “obscene” art funded.
Pressure to censor art in America is not new. Among long-time supporters of such censorship is none other than Donald Trump. As far back as 1999, when Trump was flirting with a run for president as the candidate of the Reform Party, he promised: “As President, I would ensure that the National Endowment of the Arts stops funding of this sort.” He was at the time referring to the Brooklyn Museum’s notorious elephant dung Madonna and a Detroit show depicting Jesus wearing a condom (neither of which were funded by the NEA). Trump also supported Mayor Giuliani’s quest to block city funds to the Brooklyn Museum, referring to the art as “degenerate” (a phrasing that might have warmed Hitler’s heart).
MOCA’s new exhibit is just the latest reminder that the old debates about “obscenity” of art and freedom of artistic expression are still very much unresolved — and could come back with a vengeance in the reactionary climate of Trump’s America.