Attendance is up at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, since a digital photograph went on exhibit satirizing Our Lady of Guadalupe. This image, a visual parody of the most familiar and treasured icon of Mexican Catholicism, presents the Virgin not in her traditional gorgeous robes but in a two-piece bathing suit made of roses.

Attendance went up earlier at the Brooklyn Museum when it displayed parodies of the Blessed Virgin and of Christ at the Last Supper. In the first parody, the cherubs who usually surround the Virgin in traditional iconography, with tiny wings sprouting from their baby faces, became female buttocks and genitalia the artist had excised from pornographic photographs and attached as collage. In the second parody, Christ was portrayed as a nude woman--the artist herself in a full-length frontal photograph.

The sophisticate's reaction to these works, at least to judge from reviews of the exhibitions, was studied nonchalance. The works causing all the fuss, said the reviewers, were only mildly interesting and certainly inoffensive. Other works in the two shows, they said, had rather more to offer.

The layman's reaction, when he or she had any attachment to Mary or Jesus or to iconography parodied, was impotent dismay. Censorship was out of the question, punitive measures, like reducing the museum's funding, almost equally so. When politicians proposed these, even those most offended by the art knew they were watching a grandstand play. But what could be done?

Other protests were even more counterproductive than censorship, enhancing rather than diminishing the sense that the works in question were somehow important. The resignation in Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan's here-we-go-again tone was unmistakable. Sheehan spoke as a man who cannot bring himself to say nothing, but knows, deep down, that he is wasting his breath.

There is a place for religious and ecclesiastical parody, of course, and obscenity is one of its best tools. Dante's "Inferno" is exuberantly obscene. But just as political satire only cuts deep when the satirist cares passionately about politics, so also for religious satire. All three of the artists in question claim to be, or to have been, Catholics, but even their defenders admit that in the works causing the controversy, their subject is essentially themselves as iconoclasts. And when that is the central purpose and only real subject of the work, a viewer cannot care about it without caring in advance about the artist who made it.

Some viewers actually manage this. They arrive prepared to experience their own diffuse anger vicariously through the artist's. In this transaction, the nominal subject of the work becomes little more than a convenient vehicle. Others, genuinely engaged with religion, experience a double frustration. To them, the artist's use of religious iconography fails to express what the artist is really angry about while allowing the church--which might benefit from informed and serious satire--to cry victim and yet actually escape scot-free.

Be that as it may, museum directors, concerned as they are with box-office success, might do well to note the results of an annual survey of art museum attendance in the March 9 issue of The Art Newspaper, the trade paper of the gallery biz. As The Art Newspaper interprets its own list, there were two big surprises in 2000: First, no show of impressionist art made the Top 10; second, the fourth most popular exhibition in the world was "Seeing Salvation: Images of Christ in Art," which attracted a record-breaking average daily attendance of 5,002 at the National Gallery, London. This remarkable exhibition, remarkable not least because it dared to deal with the content as well as the form of the art exhibited, may yet be seen as a watershed.

The rest of the list, however, is also such as to give pause to a museum director who might think that reputation and attendance will rise together if religion is panned. The most popular exhibition in the world was "El Greco: Identity and Transformation," which attracted nearly 7,000 visitors a day to the National Gallery, Athens. Kenneth Clark excluded El Greco from his famous "Civilization" series because--at least at that time--Sir Kenneth had no taste for Spain and little for mysticism. Now, it seems, mysticism sells.

The second most popular exhibition in the world was "Earthly Art, Heavenly Beauty," which attracted nearly 6,000 daily visitors to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Byzantine art is quintessentially spiritual, its mood uniquely still and reverent. The third most popular exhibition in the world was "Sinai: Byzantium & Russia," also at the Hermitage, with an average daily attendance of 5,500.

Artistic excellence is not determined by plebiscite. The appeal of great art is inseparable from the aristocratic conviction, battered though it must sometimes seem, that some artists are just better than others. A museum director who trusts his own judgment enough to showcase art that has not yet been borne aloft by popularity can play a formative role in identifying the art that will someday be recognized as great.

But in our day, more than ever, the voice of the people is heard in this debate as well, and with a force that goes beyond anything government censorship can achieve. To judge from museum attendance, what that voice is saying is that an artist genuinely (even if critically) engaged with a religious tradition offers more to the eye and the mind than one merely playing games with inherited images.

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