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The Virgin Mary And Condom
- Conrad - 13/3/98

One of the most emotive issues in New Zealand at the moment is the displaying of an 'art work' at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (unfortunately there are no pictures on the Web site). It is basically a statuette of the Virgin Mary with a condom pulled over it. This has outraged the Catholic community here who see it as a denigration of one of their most sacred icons, to the point where the curator has received threats of extreme violence. The Catholic Church does not, of course, condone the threats but it shows the depth of feeling that this exhibit has provoked.

The museum now finds itself in a precarious position as it decides whether to continue to exhibit it or not. On the one hand the Catholics, as well as other Christian based religions, have every reason to feel aggrieved. For them the exhibit associates the purity of the Virgin Mary (who after all is believed to have had a divine conception and virgin birth), the mother of Jesus (whose beliefs form the basis of their religion) with a symbol of sexual depravity (sex outside of marriage being sinful).

Whether or not you are a follower of the Catholic religion, do they not deserve to have respect for their beliefs and the symbols of their faith? I'm sure we can all find something that we hold to be true and fundamentally sacred to our lives that we would not appreciate being denigrated in a similar fashion. Would we not also feel compelled to vigorously protest and stand up for what we believe in so as to protect something so important to us from further attack?

Graham Capill, the leader of the Christian Heritage Party, has pointed out the hypocrisy of the Museum's stated intention (so far) not to remove the exhibit, given that the Museum has been very concerned not to offend sensitivities about Maori spirituality, but are not prepared to extend the same courtesy to those of the Christian faith. New Zealand First MP Tau Henare, always a vocal campaigner for the rights of Maori, has also recognised this inconsistency and joined the debate on the side of the Christians.

It could be a dangerous precedent to set when one section of our society can have one of its fundamentally sacred icons denigrated and held up as art, while other sections allow it to happen without thought for how this erosion of respect for another's religion, spirituality, or culture could affect their own lives in the future.

On the other hand there is at stake one of our fundamental freedoms as a democratic society and that is freedom of artistic expression. While I don't really want to get into the 'what is art?' debate, it could be said that one of the functions of contemporary art is to challenge the way we think. In this way society can be progressive rather than stagnating in the unchallenged status quo. There are plenty of examples of repressive societies in history where freedom of artistic expression was one of the first freedoms to go, and there are many people in New Zealand who would see the removal of the exhibit as one step down a dangerous path.

As to the way this exhibit can challenge us to think - it can be equally argued that the condom is a symbol of health especially in the age of AIDS but also as protection against other sexually transmitted diseases. It is a symbol of taking responsibility for your actions in advance, and for taking responsibility for your own health. The combination of the condom and the Virgin Mary could symbolise the tension between the rules and morals of a religion and the urges of its young people not only to experience the freedom of experimentation but also to act responsibly while doing so.

The combination of these two powerful symbols of protection, one physical and one spiritual, could also be seen to be a message to the Church and the Pope as to their equal relevance in these times, and for the need for continued debate over the issue of condom use as much (if not more) for the health protection of the wearer as for birth control. It may become an issue at the heart of the continuing survival of the Church given the fact of declining numbers of younger churchgoers for whom the teachings of the Church are in conflict with the realities of life for them.

Of course art is also a subjective experience, and we can only decide for ourselves what it symbolises. The exhibit does not come with instructions or explanation, though it now has its own guard after someone kicked it over last week. For those who feel insulted by it there is no justifiable reason for it to continue to be exhibited.

To get a feel for the controversy see also
The Press Letters To The Editor pages.

Should the museum keep exhibiting the Virgin Mary and Condom or withdraw it?




 
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