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The Controversy over Mark Ryden Art Exhibit at MOCA Continues

  • Mark Ryden - Rosie s Tea Party, 2005 detail - Image via Ncac org
May 20, 2016
Nadia Herzog is a pen name of Nadja Bozovic, a freelance journalist whose interest goes from the questioning influence of different art movements, through the connection of arts and urban space, to the art activism for social change. She enjoys interviewing artists and reading all about art history, and she is truly passionate about visual arts, especially about photography, design, graphics, multimedia, and street art in all of its forms.

It is okay to hold different views on politics and religion, but it is not okay to use the announcement of funding cuts as a threat, just because you don’t like the art piece you are seeing. The government shouldn’t play with censorship like that, and it shouldn’t even consider the option of silencing those with whom they disagree with. Briefly, this is what Svetlana Mintcheva, director of programs with the National Coalition Against Censorship in New York, wrote in her official letter addressed to Ben Loyola and Brian Kirwin of the Virginia Beach Arts and Humanities Commission. And what was the reason for sending it? Another discussion about the Mark Ryden’s painting Rosie’s Tea Party, which is about to be presented at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) as part of an exhibition by Hi-Fructose, a California-based magazine, and which, allegedly, contains religious imagery that has offended some Catholics.

Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art exterior - Image via Virginiamoca org
Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art exterior – Image via Virginiamoca.org

Government’s Discrimination against Art

What triggered the discussion was a previous statement made by Brian Kirwin of the Virginia Beach Arts and Humanities Commission, which contributes grant money to the museum. At one moment, while he was talking to the press, it slipped his tongue that he might consider reducing the funds because of the possibility of the offending Catholics if the controversial Ryden’s painting gets on display this weekend, as it is planned. “Contrary to what you appear to believe, government officials are barred from using the power of the purse to discriminate against art based on the viewpoint expressed in it. Anybody is entitled to criticize art in an exhibition, but First Amendment principles bar government officials from discriminating against controversial viewpoints”, Svetlana Mintcheva responded in her official letter. She also added that the government cannot suppress attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, nor can it suppress works of art claimed to be ‘offensive, sacrilegious, morally improper or dangerous’.

Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art interior - Image via Buisnesswire com
Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art interior – Image via Buisnesswire.com

And then the Catholic Church Interfered…

MOCA should not tailor its programming to promote the views of certain interest groups while suppressing those of others. That is what Svetlana Mintcheva clearly states in her letter. “Taxpayer funds go to maintain a vibrant and diverse cultural sphere that serves all Americans, not just Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals”, her writing says about the issue. But then, the Catholic Church interfered with a desire to ban the freedom of expression and put a ‘censorship claw’ over the art itself. By that point, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, entered the ‘battlefield’ and carried the discussion in an unpleasant direction.

Bill Donohue president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights - Image via Rawstory com
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights – Image via Rawstory.com

Unthoughtful Response of the Catholic League

“Why not substitute a young Muslim girl in a hijab, wearing a machete around her neck, cutting a piece of ham with the words ‘Allahu Akbar’ inscribed on it. And then, when Muslims complain, tell them that ‘art is intended to be controversial’”. These were the exact words of Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which he wrote in his official letter addressed to Debi Gray, director of the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art while commenting on the Mark Ryden’s painting. Well, let’s just say that he overreacted about the issue, so afterward came some other responses from Catholic authorities, which tried to calm down the situation. “I wish that it had been a more thoughtful response”, said local priest Jim Curran, as a reaction to Bill Donahue’s words. He states that Donahue’s words might be as much offensive to some Muslims as the painting might offend some of the Catholics.

Mark Ryden - Rosie s Tea Party, 2005 - Image via Ncac org
Mark Ryden – Rosie’s Tea Party, 2005 – Image via Ncac.org

What About Mark Ryden’s Painting?

The painting Rosie’s Tea Party from the artist Mark Ryden which caused all of the discussions, at first sight, doesn’t hold anything controversial within itself. It depicts a girl sitting at a table with her dolls and pets while having a dinner. When you take a closer look, you will find that the image of Jesus Christ is on the label over the bottle of wine, and the words Mystical Body of Christ in Latin are written over the ham that the girl is cutting. That is the actual reference to the Catholic Church, as Father Jim Curran stated for the WAVY-TV, so he is not even sure if the cutting the ham in the painting means splitting the church or if it refers to something else. One way or another, it is highly arguable whether the discussion causing the controversial surroundings over the painting should have been started in the first place. However, the public opening of the show at MOCA scheduled for May 21, 2016, is sold out.

Work of one of the artists represented at the show Turn the Page- The First Ten Years of Hi-Fructose; Audrey Kawasaki - Restlessly Still - Image via Superslice com
Work of one of the artists represented at the show Turn the Page: The First Ten Years of Hi-Fructose; Audrey Kawasaki – Restlessly Still – Image via Thesuperslice.com

The Upcoming Exhibition at MOCA

The controversial painting of Mark Ryden represents only a piece of the exhibition entitled Turn the Page: The First Ten Years of Hi-Fructose, which will be on view at MOCA in Virginia Beach, VA, from May 22 until December 31, 2016. This one-of-a-kind project is a collaborative initiative organized by MOCA and the Hi-Fructose The New Contemporary Art Magazine, based in San Francisco, CA, as both organizations are committed to raising awareness of the contemporary art being truly relevant in today’s society. The exhibition is going to be the first large-scale retrospective of contemporary artists’ work, and for the first time, so many artists will be represented at the same location. There will be 51 of them, to be precise, including Audrey Kawasaki, Brian McCarty, Erwin Wurm, Greg ‘Craola’ Simkins, Jean-Pierre Roy, Kate MacDowell, Lisa Nilsson, MARS-1, Olek, Ron English, Tiffany Bozic, and Yoshitomo Nara, among others. The viewers will get the chance to see more than 50 original artworks, ranging from hyper-realistic paintings to hallucinatory installation, followed by a significant number of master classes, panel discussions, and artist talks.

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Featured image: Mark Ryden – Rosie’s Tea Party, 2005 (detail) – Image via Ncac.org. All images used for illustrative purposes only.