Today a new portrait of Pope Benedict was unveiled in Milwaukee. The 7′ x 5′ piece, called “Eggs Benedict,” is made out of 17,000 non-lubricated condoms. The controversial piece reflects the statement made by Benedict in 2009, saying that condoms would spread the HIV virus. The artist of the piece, Niki Johnson, was deeply affected and therefore began the 270 hour process to make the piece, now on display in the Third Ward.
Obviously this is quite radical and causing mixed reviews amongst people. The few Catholics that I spoke to today all had varying opinions, ranging from disinterest, to curiosity, to plain outrage. After talking to varying people about it and researching it a bit, I came to realize that is exactly what the piece was supposed to do: start conversation. Within the neutral zone of an art piece, people can talk about issues which they might not be comfortable talking about otherwise.
But what about the religious reference? While the piece is targeting a person, that person happens to be a past pope. Therefore it makes sense that Catholics would be upset by the portrait, because many attach what the Pope says directly to their Catholic faith. So is a social commentary appropriate when it is at the expense of a religious group? Or rather is it ok to criticize the leader of a religion, past or present? I still don’t know the answer.
However, interestingly enough the former Pope changed his stance on condoms about a year after his statement was made in Africa. According to an article by The Guardian in 2010, Benedict is recording saying that in some cases, using a condom “can be a first step in the direction of moralisation, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants”. Interesting how that fact seems to be ignored in the publicity for this artwork. I feel that it rather adds another aspect to the conversation, more layers to the story.
When all is said and done though, art is up for individual interpretation. That is why I hope to go and see this piece for myself sometime and see what statement I draw from the work!