The Power of Art by Sheri S. Tepper

The art world of Santa Fe was recently hurled into conflict. One set of people called other sets of people hypocritical and disrespectful of religion. Other sets brandished the freedom of speech banner in response. The cause? A Hispanic woman artist from California, whose work was included in a recent exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art, displayed a representation of the Lady of Guadalupe wreathed in roses. I say wreathed, because that’s what the picture looks like, a by-no-means sexy woman surrounded by roses with bands of the flowers amply covering breasts and thighs, but with nude legs and a midriff showing.

Someone who saw this artwork howled that it showed the lady of Guadalupe in a bikini. Others, most of whom had not seen the art work, picked up the cry. Hundreds of petitioners showed up at the hearing to voice their opinion as to the disrespect and lack of sensitivity displayed both by the artist by those whose job it is to schedule and mount exhibitions. The fact that the artist herself was of the same heritage and possibility the same sensitivity as the complainers cut no ice. Meetings were scheduled. Hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars of public moneys were spent in an effort to be “sensitive” to the issue. In the end, the body responsible for the show allowed it to continue throughout its scheduled time, but the cries or protest still go on . . .

The Lady of Guadalupe is a dark-skinned Virgin identified with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Her legend began in Mexico, and she is worshipped by many Mexicans as their own, particular goddess. She is pictured as a dark-skinned woman, robed and draped, usually with roses, and always backed by many-tongued aureole of flame from head to foot. As such she appears among the carved santos and bultos (religious carvings and paintings) for which Santa Fe is well known, but also, and without criticism, as plastic models on the dashboards of cars, on woven “throws,” on T-shirts, and in may other cheap, mass produced and, to my mind, totally irreverent and totally disrespectful forms.

One of the leading firebrands in this issue is a priest who has been removed from Santa Fe a year or so ago for stirring up another such conflict. The old Sanctuary of Guadalupe, an adobe church of some historic significance, had been for some time falling into ruin. Adobe structures are of the earth and to earth return unless rigorously, one might say religiously maintained. The congregation has long since moved to new quarters nearby; the old sanctuary had been unsanctified; and the incipient run lay quiescent, awaiting the notice of do-gooders of any faith who might stop decay in its tracks.

As a number did. People interested in the architecture of historic Santa Fe, both Catholic and non-Catholic, gave contributions. Some money was given by local government, and some was obtained from the federal government, to restore the old building as a community center where meetings might be held and art might, on occasion, be displayed. In time, with much effort and expenditure, this goal was achieved, the old sanctuary was turned over to a non-sectarian group for management, and also in time, art was displayed there of which the young priest at the adjacent church disapproved. He invaded the exhibit with a goodly number of followers. Signs were waved, chants were chanted, fists were no doubt brandished, all demanding that the offending art be removed and the sanctuary be returned to its sacred purpose.

No one opted for the simplest solution, which would have been to advise the group that the sanctuary could be returned if the group paid back all the money and time spent on its resurrection. Being expected to pay money for something often resolves the question of its real value. This, however, would have been practical, and Santa Fe is not known for its practicality. Instead, the newspaper featured each day the latest outrage, the newest demand, the most recent attempt to mollify or negotiate. Eventually the matter was resolved when the archbishop moved the priest to a remote parish in less sensitive surroundings. That is, until the Lady in the Bikini episode.

All of the people involved in these skirmishes are sincere. They really believe that an unfamiliar image – which by being unfamiliar must be insensitive or disrespectful – has a mystic power beyond the print on the page or the paint on the canvas to besmirch the holy reality. In similar fashion, some of the local Native American pueblo peoples are deeply offended by the creation and sale of kachin figures, believing this dissemination of the image has the power to devalue the actual divinity.

It is this ability of the sacred image to control the thought, the actions, and the self-esteem of those invested in it that forms the framework of THE FRESCO. In the book, the painter is an ET, and a long dead one at that, but the observers include certain of ourselves who may find the image a matter of life and death.

Copyright© 2002, HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. This article has been provided by HarperCollins and printed with their permission.

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