The Power of Art
by Sheri S. Tepper
Page 1 of 1
The art world of Santa Fe was recently hurled into conflict. One set of
people called other sets of people hypocritical and disrespectful of religion.
Other sets brandished the freedom of speech banner in response. The cause? A
Hispanic woman artist from California, whose work was included in a recent
exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art, displayed a representation of
the Lady of Guadalupe wreathed in roses. I say wreathed, because that’s what
the picture looks like, a by-no-means sexy woman surrounded by roses with bands
of the flowers amply covering breasts and thighs, but with nude legs and a
Someone who saw this artwork howled that it showed the lady of Guadalupe in
a bikini. Others, most of whom had not seen the art work, picked up the cry.
Hundreds of petitioners showed up at the hearing to voice their opinion as to
the disrespect and lack of sensitivity displayed both by the artist by those
whose job it is to schedule and mount exhibitions. The fact that the artist
herself was of the same heritage and possibility the same sensitivity as the
complainers cut no ice. Meetings were scheduled. Hundreds of hours and
thousands of dollars of public moneys were spent in an effort to be "sensitive"
to the issue. In the end, the body responsible for the show allowed it to
continue throughout its scheduled time, but the cries or protest still go on .
The Lady of Guadalupe is a dark-skinned Virgin identified with Mary, the
mother of Jesus. Her legend began in Mexico, and she is worshipped by many
Mexicans as their own, particular goddess. She is pictured as a dark-skinned
woman, robed and draped, usually with roses, and always backed by many-tongued
aureole of flame from head to foot. As such she appears among the carved
santos and bultos (religious carvings and paintings) for which
Santa Fe is well known, but also, and without criticism, as plastic models on
the dashboards of cars, on woven "throws," on T-shirts, and in may other cheap,
mass produced and, to my mind, totally irreverent and totally disrespectful
One of the leading firebrands in this issue is a priest who has been removed
from Santa Fe a year or so ago for stirring up another such conflict. The old
Sanctuary of Guadalupe, an adobe church of some historic significance, had been
for some time falling into ruin. Adobe structures are of the earth and to earth
return unless rigorously, one might say religiously maintained. The
congregation has long since moved to new quarters nearby; the old sanctuary had
been unsanctified; and the incipient run lay quiescent, awaiting the notice of
do-gooders of any faith who might stop decay in its tracks.
As a number did. People interested in the architecture of historic Santa Fe,
both Catholic and non-Catholic, gave contributions. Some money was given by
local government, and some was obtained from the federal government, to restore
the old building as a community center where meetings might be held and art
might, on occasion, be displayed. In time, with much effort and expenditure,
this goal was achieved, the old sanctuary was turned over to a non-sectarian
group for management, and also in time, art was displayed there of which the
young priest at the adjacent church disapproved. He invaded the exhibit with a
goodly number of followers. Signs were waved, chants were chanted, fists were
no doubt brandished, all demanding that the offending art be removed and the
sanctuary be returned to its sacred purpose.
No one opted for the simplest solution, which would have been to advise the
group that the sanctuary could be returned if the group paid back all the money
and time spent on its resurrection. Being expected to pay money for something
often resolves the question of its real value. This, however, would have been
practical, and Santa Fe is not known for its practicality. Instead, the
newspaper featured each day the latest outrage, the newest demand, the most
recent attempt to mollify or negotiate. Eventually the matter was resolved when
the archbishop moved the priest to a remote parish in less sensitive
surroundings. That is, until the Lady in the Bikini episode.
All of the people involved in these skirmishes are sincere. They really
believe that an unfamiliar image – which by being unfamiliar must be
insensitive or disrespectful – has a mystic power beyond the print on the page
or the paint on the canvas to besmirch the holy reality. In similar fashion,
some of the local Native American pueblo peoples are deeply offended by the
creation and sale of kachin figures, believing this dissemination of the
image has the power to devalue the actual divinity.
It is this ability of the sacred image to control the thought, the actions,
and the self-esteem of those invested in it that forms the framework of THE
FRESCO. In the book, the painter is an ET, and a long dead one at that, but the
observers include certain of ourselves who may find the image a matter of life
Copyright© 2002, HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. This article has been provided by HarperCollins and printed with their permission.