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  Cardinal Condemns Virgin Painting

By Beth J. Harpaz
Associated Press Writer
Sunday, Sept. 26, 1999; 5:12 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK –– Cardinal John O'Connor on Sunday asked Catholics to join him in condemning a painting of the Virgin Mary embellished with a clump of elephant dung, while civil rights activists defended the Brooklyn Museum of Art's right to show the piece.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, meanwhile, reiterated his pledge to cut all $7 million of city funding to the museum – one-third of its budget – unless the painting is pulled from an exhibit scheduled to open Friday.

"I'm saddened by what appears to be an attack not only on our blessed mother ... but one must ask if it is not an attack on religion itself and in a special way on the Catholic Church," said O'Connor in his weekly sermon at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

O'Connor did not name the mayor, but said he was "grateful to city officials," adding: "It is their right, if not their duty, to express themselves on such matters."

O'Connor urged his listeners to write to the museum: "You might want to express your deep sadness at this disrespect."

But New York Civil Liberties Union director Norman Siegel said the mayor's threats to cut the funding "violates the First Amendment. His assertion that New York City can withdraw all funds for the museum based on a single exhibition that he finds offensive illustrates a serious misunderstanding of the Constitution."

Siegel, who discussed the controversy Sunday as a speaker at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Harlem, later said by phone that government funding may not legally be withdrawn because public officials dislike particular works.

"You don't have an obligation to provide funding to the arts but once you do, you can't defund a museum solely because public officials are displeased with the expression of the art," he said.

The Brooklyn Museum's director, Arnold Lehman, has not publicly said what he will do, but he has a reputation for standing firm on matters of artistic expression. Directors of other museums have been noticeably silent.

"There's a chill in the air because people are afraid of the mayor, but if he wins this one there are huge consequences to artistic expression," Siegel said.

Giuliani, meanwhile, defended his funding threat at a news conference at a new riverfront park in the West Village.

"There is nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects," Giuliani said. "If you're going to use taxpayers' dollars, you have to be sensitive to the feelings of the public."

One passerby heckled him as "Adolf Giuliani!" and another shouted: "Get your hands off our museums!"

The painting, "The Holy Virgin Mary," depicts Mary with dark skin, African features and flowing robes. It features a shellacked clump of elephant dung and two dozen cutouts of buttocks from pornographic magazines.

The artist, Chris Ofili, 30, a black Catholic who was born in England and lives there, has said he used the pornographic images because classical images of Mary are often sexually charged.

He also told Salon magazine in February: "Elephant dung in itself is quite a beautiful object."

Calls placed Sunday to two New York art dealers who represent Ofili and messages left at his London residence were not immediately returned.

Ofili began using elephant dung during a six-week stay in Zimbabwe. He is now famous for using the material – which he gets from the London Zoo – in virtually all his artwork. In 1998, he won Britain's prestigious Turner Prize, a $33,000 award for artists under 50.

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press

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