Copyright © 1999 Henrietta W. Hay

And Now, For Some Culture . . .
October 15, 1999

Culture exists in many forms. One of Webster's definitions of the word is, "the ideas, customs, skills, arts that are transferred, communicated or passed along to succeeding generations."
The culture war is on full tilt his month as the Brooklyn Museum of Art is embroiled in a political/cultural war with Mayor/wants to be Senator Guiliani, and Jesse Ventura, Governor of Minnesota/wants to be president, who is looking more and more like Paul Bunyan.
Last week I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop with a good friend inhaling caffeine. One of the wall decorations is a big gunny sack that had held coffee beans. It is stamped with the name of the country of origin (which I have forgotten) and what looks like a red bird holding a branch in its beak.
I said to my friend, "What if we framed that sack, displayed it in a museum and called it "The Holy Virgin Mary?" Would that make it a picture of the Virgin Mary? Would people be offended? Or what if the painting in the Brooklyn Museum were titled, "Bird with a Branch," would anybody be offended? "Well," she said, "the robins probably would be. " That philosophical discussion lasted through a second cup of coffee and, of course, we reached no conclusion.
The discussion, of course, concerned the painting by Chris Ofili, a British artist whose parents are from Nigeria. The painting is titled "The Holy Virgin Mary," and shows a black female with a bit of elephant dung on one breast. We have all seen copies in the newspapers and magazines. It is hardly in the same artistic class as Michelango's "The Last Judgment," which was rebuked by the Vatican in 1541 because of its nude figures, but is causing a lot more excitement. Personally, I think I'll skip it.
As my friend the theologian says, "The image has nothing to do with religion."
The argument in Brooklyn gets hotter by the day. The mayor refused to pay the October installment of the city's $7 million subsidy to the museum, one of the finest in the country. Just to make sure the museum officials heard him, he threatened to throw the museum out of the city-owned building it has occupied for 100 years. The Brooklyn Museum filed a First Amendment suit in Federal Court against Mayor Giuliani, who calls the exhibit "sick stuff." Both the ACLU and the Catholic League are picketing -- surely the Odd Couple. Thousands of New Yorkers who had never been inside a museum before are rushing to see the infamous picture. The mayor is playing political poker with a shaky hand and Hillary Clinton is wisely keeping her mouth shut. Is this a great country or what?
Another brief culture item: I just saw an interview on TV with a woman who had sculpted the Last Supper in butter. There were no audible protests unless the cows were complaining because of overwork.
Since I was caught buying a copy of Playboy this month, I want to be sure everyone understands why. It was for the article. I am seeking culture. Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, gave an interview to Playboy that made headlines all across America.
Jesse, "The Body," sort of reminds me of Paul Bunyan that icon of folk culture in my childhood. Jesse, the ex-pro wrestler with a shaved head, a couple of holes for the ear rings he no longer wears, a high school education (just barely) and possible aspirations to the presidency is in the Paul Bunyan tradition. Paul Bunyan, a true folklore hero, possessed strength, speed and skill that matched the vastness of North America. With his big blue ox Babe, he is credited with creating Puget Sound, the Grand Canyon and the Black Hills. Jesse took on the religious right, gun control folks, pro-lifers, feminists, blondes and fat people. And they have another thing in common. They both call Minnesota home. What's with that cold northern air?
Culture comes in many forms.
The funniest parts of the newspapers aren't always in the comic strips.