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