Pope’s portrait in condoms galls Milwaukee’s faithful

It’s been a while since we had an old-fashioned brouhaha over art, but today the Milwaukee Art Museum is accommodating the ongoing debate over what is art, and what is vile trash.

It’s all about this:

Artist Niki Johnson created “Eggs Benedict,” in which she used 17,000 condoms to fashion a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI.

“This was never intended to be derisive, mocking or disrespectful of the pope,” museum board of trustees president Don Layden tells the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It was to have a conversation about AIDS and AIDS education. And my hope is when the piece appears in the museum that will be the focus of the discussion.”

That’s a hard one to believe, says Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki.

“What’s at play here is either an intentional attack on a faith tradition and its teachings or a publicity stunt for the artist,” he said. “And we would be opposed to any faith tradition or religious leader being attacked in such a way.”

The museum bought the piece from gay rights activist Joseph Pabst for $25,000. It will display the portrait this fall.

The museum acknowledges complaints, including canceled memberships, from about 200 people so far, according to the newspaper.

“It seems like in the world of art, the last bastion of acceptable prejudice is Catholic Christians,” said Kathleen Arenz of River Hills, a longtime docent who expressed her disappointment to the museum.

“I’m not a Luddite. I understand that art can be controversial and political,” said Arenz. “As a docent, I feel I’m in an impossible situation. The work is very offensive to me personally. How am I going to justify its artistic integrity and the motives of the curators who acquired it to the people on my tours?”

Another longtime docent severed her ties with the museum over the gift. She declined to be interviewed. At least one donor notified the museum that his company’s foundation would no longer contribute. He did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

The director of the museum is unrepentant.

“Museums do not make decisions about programming based on donors and donations,” Dan Keegan said.

“If museums made their decisions on donor reaction or negative responses to programming, we as a nation and a free society would be far poorer than the loss of a future donation,” he said.

  • Gary F

    Bob, would you or MPR/NPR run this story if it were Mohamed?

  • John O.

    You would think *someone* at the Museum would have raised their hand and said something like, “Uh…you know….a portrait of the Pope using condoms is probably not going to go over well with many folks. You do know that, right?” smh

    • Postal Customer

      Your view is that the museum should not have art that offends certain people?

      • John O.

        No, my argument is that the museum decides what is going to be shown and when. It’s their decision. I’m simply saying as a part of that decision-making process, I would think they would have weighed pros and cons somewhere in there on exhibiting something that will obviously generate controversy. If that’s how they choose to roll, fine.
        As a customer, if a certain type of exhibit interests me, I’ll go. If it doesn’t, I won’t.

        • Postal Customer

          They probably did weight the pros and cons

          “As a customer, if a certain type of exhibit interests me, I’ll go. If it doesn’t, I won’t.”

          The museum addressed exactly that.

  • jon

    Does it come in Confederate flag?

  • Robert

    “It was to have a conversation about AIDS and AIDS education. And my
    hope is when the piece appears in the museum that will be the focus of
    the discussion.” –have pieces like this ever generated conversation over anything other than their shock factor and lack of taste?

  • kevins

    The controversy is the $25K…really…$25K. Those are some pricy protectors.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    Did the museum consider the controversial nature of the piece? Yes, most certainly. The statements by the board chair and the director indicate that they expected controversy. They may also feel that while some donors, volunteers and visitors may leave the museum’s community because of this work, others will appreciate what the museum is trying to do and step forward to fill those gaps.

    Are the artist and the museum staff naive for stating that the goal of the piece is to provide a platform to discuss AIDS and AIDS education? No. The public’s attention span for outrage is often limited. If the piece is on long term display then eventually the museum’s message about the piece is the one that visitors will be hear.

  • Nick K

    Well the museum got ripped off, so there is that. It isn’t especially amazing, or interesting, or clever… the only appeal seems to be the controversial nature of it.

  • lindblomeagles

    I think the larger, under-reported story of this decade is the scrutiny Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam have received from the world and some supporters. Just last month, I believe, an event mocking Muhammad was held in Texas. Today, its this portrait attacking the Pope. Earlier this spring, some Americans and Europeans questioned Nettanyahu’s anti-peace stance in Israel.