Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
In yet another example of blatant anti-Catholic bigotry from our so-called “tolerant” culture, the Milwaukee Art Museum is currently under fire for planning to feature a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI made from 17,000 colored condoms which they recently acquired from a gay activist.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is reporting on the upcoming display, entitled “Eggs Benedict”, which was acquired from a local philanthropist and gay rights activist named Joseph Pabst. Pabst says he paid $25,000 for it and donated it to the museum where it will go on display this fall.
The portrait’s creator, Wisconsin-native Niki Johnson, says it’s supposed to spark a discussion about AIDS. She insists the piece was inspired by the Pope’s 2009 visit to Africa in which she believes he suggested condoms could be used in some rare instances to control the spread AIDS.
Pabst claims this is why he bought it. “I did not buy it because I thought it was beautiful," he said in an interview. "I bought it because I thought it was provocative and I thought it was important. ... This piece has work to do. It has to make people think and have discussions."
Instead, it’s making them very angry and the museum has already received hundreds of complaints as well as the loss of funding from important donors who think there’s a better way of having a discussion about AIDS than with a portrait that mocks religion.
For instance, the Rev. Mr. Michael Bowen and his wife, Sara Armbruster Bowen, both Milwaukee-area attorneys and members of St. Monica Catholic Church, where Mr. Bowen serves as a deacon, have resigned their memberships in the museum - which they’ve had for 30 years – in protest.
They feel the portrait is a "piece of anti-Catholic bigotry and hate speech," Michael Bowen told the Sentinel.
The Bowens are joined by numerous cancelled memberships, the resignation of a longtime tour guide and the loss of a few donors who say they’ll never give to the museum again.
“What’s at play here is either an intentional attack on a faith tradition and its teachings or a publicity stunt for the artist,” Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for the Milwaukee Archbishop, told the Sentinel. “And we would be opposed to any faith tradition or religious leader being attacked in such a way.”
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, describes the portrait as “radical individualism” — which he defines as “personal freedom that is exercised without a license” and without “personal responsibility.”
“Would the art museum accept…art featuring national or international popular social reconstructionists in a manner that would depict the opposite of what they represented,” Listecki wrote on his blog. “Such as Gandhi sporting an uzi, Lincoln in Klu Klux Klan garb or Hitler with a yarmulke reading the Torah, all in the name of art and beauty?”
In spite of how ludicrous the claim is on its face, Don Layden, president of the museum board of trustees, insists the piece “was never intended to be derisive, mocking or disrespectful of the Pope. . . And my hope is when the piece appears in the museum that will be the focus of the discussion.”
Not even the museum’s staff is buying it. Kathleen Arenz, the tenured tour guide who resigned over the portrait, said she understands that art is meant to provoke discussion, but felt as though this particular piece went too far.
“It seems like in the world of art,” Arenz told the Sentinel, “The last bastion of acceptable prejudice is Catholic Christians.”
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