Title: Can Art Speak For Itself?

Essay by izzy321College, UndergraduateA+, April 2004

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What makes art good? According to the committee which awards the Turner Prize, good art is an idea expressed that makes a great public impact. This may not be true in all cases, but it certainly is concerning a British artist named Chris Ofili. Ofili was awarded the Turner Prize in 1998 and used the prize money to visit his parent's homeland, Zimbabwe. While there, Ofili developed a huge respect for his African heritage and since visiting has used many depictions of it in his paintings. One of Ofili's paintings, "The Holy Virgin Mary," was chosen to be displayed in a Young British Artists exhibit in the Brooklyn Museum. This painting caused quite an uproar, particularly with the Catholic League as well as with the then New York City mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. What was found so offensive was that Ofili's depiction of the Virgin Mary was "desecrated" with elephant dung.

Giuliani not only threatened to take away city funding but also wanted to evict the Brooklyn Museum of Art from the city-owned building it had occupied for over 100 years. However, Ofili, along with his admirers, sees his masterpiece under a different light. Ofili says that he uses the elephant dung to connect his paintings with nature and his Mother Africa. The mayor's accusations of "The Holy Virgin Mary" as blasphemous are unfounded; Ofili was merely trying to express his own heritage and motivate new thinking through his artwork, as every artist aspires to do. The controversy over the Sensation exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art was focused on Ofili's painting, though he may have taken the fall for every artist in the exhibit. The exhibit was designed to stimulate, thus the name. However, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's reaction was to take deep offense. He went...