The current exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts is, as described in a weekend Baltimore Sun feature, certainly sounds like an "embarrassment of riches," featuring works by Michelangelo, Durer, Botticelli and Titian. Some of the art has never been in an American exhibit before. As the museum's website notes:
Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea explores the concept of womanhood represented by the Virgin Mary as well as the social and sacred functions her image has served through time. This landmark exhibition organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts brings together more than 60 Renaissance- and Baroque-era masterworks from the Vatican Museums, Uffizi Gallery, and other museums, churches, and private collections in Europe and the United States.
Divided into six thematic sections, the exhibition presents images of Mary as a daughter, cousin, and wife; the mother of an infant; a bereaved parent; the protagonist in a rich life story developed through the centuries; a link between heaven and earth; and an active participant in the lives of those who revere her.
However, there is a problem.
Since the exhibit takes a rather conventional approach and focuses on a specific period of time in art history, it suffers from an shocking lack of elephant dung.
In other words, this exhibit has -- among a elite art critics -- become controversial because it is not causing controversy among (wait for it) religious believers who are, by definition, opposed to modern art. As the Sun report notes:
The resulting kerfuffle underscores a dilemma facing museum administrators: It's impossible to mount a religiously themed exhibit in America in 2014 without becoming enmeshed in politics — no matter how strenuously organizers seek to avoid that pitfall.
"Museums are terrified of tackling any show having to do with religion," says Melissa Katz, the former museum curator who wrote an essay for the "Picturing Mary" exhibition catalog.
"They fear that if you open up that conversation, people are going to come with fixed ideas. Protests and picketers generate press, but they close down the discussion. You get two sides that already have their own point of view, and then nobody looks at the art."
Please hear me stress that this story does a very fine job of allowing the exhibit's creators to defend themselves. The story, as is should, devotes lots of ink to the views of those who believe the exhibit -- because Mary is such a controversial figure to feminists and others -- should have focused on a wider period of time and, thus, included some controversial modern works.
Instead, museum officials settled for an exhibit that would merely please the masses, which means pleasing traditional Christians, apparently.
"I think Washington is still smarting from the culture wars," says Tey Marianna Nunn, director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center Art Museum in Albuquerque, N.M.
She was referring to the period in the 1980s and 1990s when religious leaders and right-wing politicians attacked the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities for supporting programs perceived as promoting anti-Christian values.
"The ground beneath museums is shifting," Nunn says, "and there are a lot of different stakeholders. Self-censorship shouldn't happen, but it does."
So what we have here, again, is a story about a debate, a debate with more than two sides, in this case.
The story makes it clear, for example, that this astonishingly deep exhibit could not have taken place if its planners had decided to include modern art about Mary that would have offended the very churches and museums that controlled some of these priceless masterpieces. Why?
... "Picturing Mary" provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience certain paintings and sculptures that rarely leave Europe. The exhibit was three years in the making and is being shown only in Washington.
In addition, some pieces on view were lent by the Vatican, by individual churches and by private collectors for whom the paintings and statues aren't just works of art, but an expression of faith. Katz says it's not unusual for potential benefactors to inquire about the context in which their works will be shown before agreeing to ship them overseas.
So who is missing in this story? Well, three groups of folks, at the very least.
First, the anti-modern art religious believers loom over this piece like demons, yet the Sun team never bothers to talk to one. Why not just quote one sentence from a website? That's so much easier than allowing these people to speak for themselves and answer real questions.
Readers also never hear from the shallow, anti-intellectual people who, apparently, are flocking to this exhibit. What do they think? Do they have minds as well as souls?
Most of all, I missed hearing from religious believers -- intellectuals, artists, critics, collectors and others -- who genuinely love art. Period. How would they defend or criticize this exhibit?
You see, when covering a debate about a controversy, it does help to talk to the people are on both sides of the controversy. Can we agree on that?