Even in Elephant Dung There Is Beauty

The artist Chris Ofili has aroused the indignation of the

Mayor of New York, or at least has provided said political candidate with a

chance to strut his credentials as a believer and a man of the people, even if

he lives in and off of this city of sinners and wiseacres. Mr. Ofili’s painting

The Holy Virgin Mary , with its

elephant dung design, has pitted the arts community, the cultureniks, the

culture-vultures, the rebels, the innovators, the raggle-taggle folk of gallery

and poetry readings who drink wine from paper cups, the downtown crowd and

their uptown admirers, against the good people in a way that hasn’t happened

here for a long time. Marcel Duchamp would be pleased. René Magritte is

laughing in his hat. Andy Warhol, who lurks in either heaven or hell, must be

pleased as punch (not Sulzberger).

What we have here is a classic difference of opinion about

the purpose of art: Should it reinforce the self-satisfaction of the state, or

should it needle, question, open up form and content to new interpretation? We

all know who believes what and why, and I’m not about to use this space for a

free-thought rant on the integrity of creation and the incredible shrunken

brains of the bourgeois. After all, I am one: My dishes match, I pay my parking

tickets, I stroll in the park on Sundays, I own a string of pearls and a Coach

watch. But I do want to talk about Mr. Ofili’s painting itself.

I don’t see it as necessarily anti-Catholic or

anti-religion. I think there’s been a too-quick-to-flinch-and-too-slow-to-think

response here. The British artist, whose parents are from Lagos, Nigeria,

traveled to Zimbabwe and was awed by the natural wonders of the animal life

that wandered through the lands of ancestors. He saw the earth as beautiful. He

painted a black Madonna with a masklike face, like the objects of worship he

must have seen. He painted a delicate lavender robe across her possibly

pregnant stomach, and he exposed her breasts, as many tribal African women do.

Her robe seems to be made of leaves; nature is around her and on her body. He

then used elephant dung to mark her bare breast and to complete the design, as

if rain were falling, as if the spores of nature were surrounding the lady.

Where is the offense? It is in the dung. For us the word is shit, for us the

excrement is unholy, defiling, disgusting. But that seems unlikely to be this

artist’s meaning. He does not seem to be desecrating the Madonna-at least, this

is not desecration if one views the dung as part of nature, as a sign of life

moving across the floor of the world. If the dung of the great and powerful

elephant is simply read as a sign of animal life, of biology in nature, as part

of the color of earth-not as our Western eyes see it, but as man might once

have: the smell of a human body on the heath, bowels and digestion, heart and

blood, all part of the process of life itself-then perhaps this dung is not

slung against the Catholic Church and its worship of the Holy Virgin, but is

used as a way to bring the African connection to animals, to nature, into the

circle of the holy and the sacrosanct. In the reproductions of the painting

that I have seen, the dung seems shaped to echo the shape of testicles. This

may not be rudeness or obscenity. Perhaps it is a resonance of fertility, of

male bestial power surrounding the symbol of beauty and grace and female

holiness that is the Virgin herself, the Virgin Africanized, returned in part

to her original form as the goddess of the creation of life itself. This

explanation is, of course, mine. The artist has hinted at it but has not said

it quite this way, but I am sure it is as plausible as our Mayor’s knee-jerk,

opportunistic outrage that the Church has been defiled by the artist’s vision.

Our immediate reaction to dung is culturally determined,

parochial-not in the sense of schools deserving of vouchers, but in the sense

of limited to our spot on the globe, our brief moment in time. The role of the

artist is to help us out of our hole, to provide ladders backward and forward

so that we can respond to the things we feel and the things we see freshly,

with new eyes and cleansed heart. Sigmund Freud wondered why our own shit

smells acceptably good and another’s smells bad. This is a product of

our being toilet-trained, forced to bend to the demands of civilization

for control of the sphincter. The sphincter is not inherently more abhorrent a

muscle than any other. Its job is no more appalling than the pulling of air

into the lungs or the masticating of teeth. We come out of the terrible two’s

with a reaction of shame and disgust against our body products, but perhaps we

overdo it. Perhaps they, too, are part of the holy package that is life.

The elephant is large and is considered a god in far-off

parts of the world. I’ve only seen elephants in the zoo or in the circus, and

their godly aspect is greatly diminished there, but I imagine that if I were in

the great African veldt and saw the swaying of the herd as they stopped by a

pool of water under the blazing sun, I might feel differently. I might be awed

even by the turds elephants leave behind, smoking in the heat. I think the

artist was telling me of that awe with his painting of the Virgin. I suspect he

was not thinking anti-Catholic thoughts at all but attempting to fuse his

identity-African, Anglo, Catholic-into a whole. The transformation of religious

imagery into personal imagery, into something deeply felt and designed to

incorporate our memories and our culture into a communicable unit, is not an

antisocial act. For some of us, this is religion working to express our

relation to time and space, to good and bad, to God and his glory.

The original may indeed offend, and must be allowed to do

so. If it is worthless, it will pass away with the breeze. If it speaks to the

soul, it will stay awhile. Yes, it’s absurd of us to ask politicians-of the

left, right or just grubbing for votes-to pause and let artists’ images

reverberate through their minds like the words of poems or the wisps of barely

recovered dreams.

So we have

kneelers-at-the-feet-of-the-almighty-Staten-Island-blue-collar-voter like Rudy

Giuliani, or twisters-and-turners like Hillary Clinton. The mighty elephant,

dung and all, might be appalled by our waste products if he were exposed to the

current debate. Even in Elephant Dung There Is Beauty