A minor shitstorm has occurred here in Cork with the public display of a picture in UCC. The picture purports to be the Virgin Mary, wrapped in a garland of flowers and held aloft by a naked angel. The picture (shown below) is colourful, edgy, yet contains nothing particularly out of the ordinary – butterflies, roses, bare breasts – that sort of thing.

via almalopez.net

Nevertheless, because it involves a depiction of the Virgin Mary, some people have reacted angrily. Cork TD, Jerry Buttimer (FG) has called it “blasphemous and blatantly disrespectful“, while Bishop John Buckley and various Catholic groups in the US have also weighed in on the controversy.

Buttimer’s reasons for opposing the exhibit are interesting. He says that, in a pluralist society, we must ensure there is respect for all religions and none. He says that it is not acceptable for anyone to denigrate other people’s beliefs. Religious iconography has always had a respect for the sensitivities of believers. He attacks UCC because he says that universities must accept and tolerate all beliefs and opinions.

Jerry Buttimer

I’m sorry, but what planet is Jerry Buttimer living on? What strange reality does he inhabit where beliefs – and opinions – are meant to be prized like precious glass caged animals, immune from criticism and ridicule? I’ll bet the academics in UCC are rolling on the floor laughing at his depiction of their institution. He seems to think, bless him, that universities are dusty places where all ideas are accepted and treasured, like great dusty museums full of cadavers and old cloth. Does he not realise that universities, in the main, are vicious battlegrounds? Places where beliefs and opinions are subjected to the most ruthless examination, criticism, ridicule and demolition? If you have a precious belief or opinion, Jerry, best not visit a university.

As for Buttimer’s point that religious iconography has always had a respect for the sentitivities of believers, perhaps he should read up on the Council of Trent of 1563, where artists such as Michelangelo and Veronese were condemned by zealous churchmen for depictions of profanity and lasciviousness. When reviewing the history of western religious art, the central concern of artists was possibly not so much respecting the sensitivities of believers, as it was of ensuring that their patrons did not have them beheaded.

Are we seriously meant to accept that religious viewpoints be respected at all times, no matter what the basis for those viewpoints are? Mr. Buttimer may be dimly aware that many different religious viewpoints exist: some of which are highly discriminatory towards women and certain minority groups, some of which condone barbaric treatment of others with which they disagree and others which impose on their members highly restrictive rules that often lead to misery and despair. Perhaps Mr. Buttimer would prefer we keep quiet about these things. After all, we might upset the poor sensitive egos of those who promulgate and tolerate these abuses.

I applaud Alma Lopez for setting this particular cat amongst the pigeons. I hope the controversy prompts many people to visit her exhibition. It places our insane blasphemy law back in the public consciousness and allows us to proclaim the merits of freedom of expression to those who would prefer a return to the old times, where deference to religion and religious authority permitted the most abhorrent abuses to take place right under our noses.