An enormous portrait of Pope Benedict XVI made from 17,000 different colored condoms is set for display at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Catholics are outraged, claiming that the display would not be tolerated if it offended any other religious, racial or ethnic community.
“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, said to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “And we would be opposed to any faith tradition or religious leader being attacked in such a way.”
The museum has defended the condom portrait — called “Eggs Benedict” — done by Wisconsin-native Niki Johnson, arguing that its purpose is to spark a discussion about sexual health, not offend those who affiliate with the Catholic faith.
“This was never intended to be derisive, mocking or disrespectful of the Pope,” said Don Layden, president of the museum board of trustees. “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.”
Johnson says her piece was inspired by the Pope’s 2009 visit to Africa, in which he reportedly suggested condom use could be justified in rare instances to help hinder the spread of AIDS.
The museum has now tallied more than 200 complaints, numerous cancelled memberships, the resignation of one longtime tour guide and the loss of a few donors who have vowed to never give to the museum again.
Two Milwaukee attorneys, Michael and Sara Armbruster Bowen, terminated their museum memberships over the portrait, stating that it is a “piece of anti-Catholic bigotry and hate speech.”
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, however, describes it as “radical individualism” — which Rev. Listecki defines as “personal freedom that is exercised without a license” and without “personal responsibility.”
Listecki also implied that such “radical individualism” would not be accepted in any form if it insulted another community other than Catholic Christians.
“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 posed 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?”
And the Milwaukee Archbishop is not alone in thinking that this art is only tolerated because it is directed towards the Catholic faith.
Kathleen Arenz, the tenured docent who resigned over the pope’s depiction, says she understands that art is meant to provoke discussion, but felt as though this particular piece was too offensive to justify on her tours.
“It seems like in the world of art,” Arenz told the Journal Sentinel, “The last bastion of acceptable prejudice is Catholic Christians.”