The controversy surrounding the milk chocolate sculpture of Jesus Christ to be displayed at The Lab gallery in the Roger Smith Hotel, first reported by Arma Virumque and its subsequent cancellation has been well documented. If you actually go to the corner where “My Sweet Lord” would have been displayed, you would see how inadequate a space it would have been for such an exhibition.
Last night, Yuliya Lanina’s Flights of Fantasy dance/performance art piece was finishing its run, probably enjoying greater crowds thanks to new notoriety of the venue. With dancers dressed as butterflies, buzzing around flowers to a variety of music (including John Zorn), against an animated backdrop, Flights may have been a little goofy, but was actually kind of sweet. It would have made good programming for Easter week.
Instead, the milk chocolate “anatomically correct” Jesus was set to move in for Holy Week. Former gallery director Matthew Semler gave contradicting stories to the press whether it was deliberately “intended as a meditation on the Holy Week” or “that the Holy Week timing was an unfortunate coincidence.” Regardless, it is far fetched to feign surprise that many were outraged by the sculpture.
The space in question is a converted corner store front. The sidewalk is about average for New York, but it is currently more confined due to scaffolding. It would not be the ideal location to get the full effect of any large installation and the resulting gawkers and protestors would have likely caused pedestrian congestion and perhaps even safety concerns.
Semler described the outcry as a “Catholic fatwa,” but he should really climb down off his milk chocolate cross. (As others have pointed out, he should try a Mohammed installation before throwing around the term “fatwa.”) In truth, he got the exact response he was hoping for, except his corporate sponsor, the Roger Smith Hotel, was less than thrilled about the project when it came to light. As in previous art war skirmishes, the partisans have a symbiotic relationship. One side needs to cry “censorship” in their bid to become a cause celeb. The other capitalizes on people’s outrage to build their organizations. The losers are everyone who believes in building coalitions (public or private) to support art that enriches the spirit.
The worst part about Semler’s decision is that it estranges people from the art world. When people in Middle America look at these exhibitions and think “I don’t know much about art, but I don’t need anymore of this,” they’re right. There is more to the art world than these deliberate provocations, but when most people are not exposed to more edifying art through the media, they can’t be blamed for taking a cynical view of art and artists.