USA: Threats to cut museum funding over “blasphemous” paintings

MOCA hi-fructose virginia
Ben Loyola, a member of the Virginia Beach Arts and Humanities Commission, and one other member, have threatened to cut funding to the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) over an exhibition featuring two Mark Ryden paintings Loyola deems to be “very anti-Christian” and “anti-Catholic”, reported local tv news WAVY-TV on 13 May 2016.

Loyola, CEO of local IT company Loyola Enterprises, took offense to religious imagery in one painting – ‘Rosie’s Tea Party’ – and gore in the other – ‘Fountain’ – threatening to cut funding if such paintings will be displayed. The comment coming at a time when a future funding meeting is set to take place, reported Artnet News on 20 May 2016.

“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 said. Adding that the girl is wearing a communion dress and crucifix, and a bottle of wine on the table carries a picture of Jesus.

For the second paining 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?”


Artistic freedom violation
In an open letter to the Virginia arts commission, National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) programme director Svetlana Mintcheva wrote:

Art often provokes impassioned responses – sometimes angry sometimes enthusiastic. However, 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.

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.

MOCA spokesperson Dot Greene told Hyperallergic arts magazine that the commission grants the museum $120,000 USD annually (approx. 106,500 Euros) of its $2 million USD operating budget to support exhibition expenses.


Museum’s response
In an email to the magazine Greene wrote:

We do not find the work anti-Christian. 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 received email and phone complaints to remove the paintings, but has not removed them. Ryden’s paintings show girls with doll-like characteristics featured in unsettling scenes in his typical pop surrealist style, juxtaposing old painting techniques with pop culture themes.

The paintings are part of the ‘Turn the Page: The First Ten Years of Hi-Fructose’ exhibition, which began on 22 May 2016 and ends on 31 December 2016, featuring paintings from 51 artists that appeared in the San Francisco-based art magazine.


Photo from the exhibition’s official website


Sources

» Alt Daily – 20 May 2016:
Open letter from the National Coalition Against Censorship

» Hyperallergic – 20 May 2016:
Virginia arts commissioners threaten to defund museum over “anti-Christian” paintings

» Artnet News – 20 May 2016:
Catholic league targets museum over Mark Ryden’s ‘anti-Christian’ art

» National Coalition Against Censorship – 16 May 2016:
Penny Dreadful in paint: Accusations of blasphemy hit Virginia MOCA/Hi-Fructose exhibition

» WAVY-TV – 13 May 2016:
Surreal art exhibit at MOCA sparks controversy


Related information

» Artsfreedom.org – 8 March 2016:
USA: Jewish community theatre cancels play

» Artsfreedom.org – 26 November 2015:
USA: Convicted Native American activist’s paintings removed from exhibition

» Artsfreedom.org – 4 November 2015:
USA: Michigan school bans novel from book fair

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