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What Would Jesus Drink?

Christopher Myers

Posted 8/7/2002

Last the Nose saw Jesus, he was hovering above us on Mount Royal Avenue, serene expression on his face, a frosty Budweiser in his hand. But the morning of Aug. 5, the Nose got a call from an artsy insider who told us that our holy apparition had transubstantiated into little more than an unattractive billboard, splattered with paint.

New Jersey artist Ron English created the savior-spoofing billboard as part of Loco Motion, one of the exhibits at last month's Artscape. Exhibit curator Logan Hicks says the work was intended as a statement about the commercialization of American culture and the proliferation of advertising in the inner city. The text accompanying the image of Jesus read the king of the jews for the king of beers.

Last week, however, there were rumblings that the artwork's controversial imagery had been deemed inappropriate by religious groups and leaders. It's not clear what (if any) local religious groups stepped forward--none of the local houses of worship we called had complained about the billboard; few of the people we talked to had even seen it--but one national conservative organization, the Rutherford Institute, was mulling some kind of action against Artscape organizers.

John Whitehead, president of the Charlottesville, Va.-based institute--best known for helping fund Paula Jones' sexual-harassment suit against Bill Clinton--says Rutherford received calls from unhappy Baltimoreans of multiple faiths, up in arms about the image. "I understand some people have reacted very emotionally," he says in apparent reference to the anonymous individual who doused Christ and His Bud with a bucket of paint sometime in the wee hours of Aug. 3 (according to Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, which puts on Artscape). "We have been contacted by many people who have been really upset by" the piece, Whitehead says. "And we're looking into the constitutionality of it."

While the Nose is a little dubious about how freedom of religion trumps freedom of expression, Whitehead says that the Supreme Court has ruled in the past that when art either promotes or denigrates religion, "we can't pour public money into it." Should the Rutherford Institute determine that English's billboard is intended to denigrate religion, it will file suit. "I'm sure that there will be some kind of defense of this piece as art," Whitehead says. "And that's fine, because I'm a great lover of art. The question is how people perceive it . . . and I think the average churchgoer is very upset by this."

The average art lover of the Nose's acquaintance is very upset by the violation of the billboard Jesus. "There was a prayer vigil for me on Sunday, and they prayed for me," smirks exhibit curator Hicks. (Disclosure: Hicks has occasionally done freelance graphic-design work for City Paper.) "I think it's unfortunate that people can't seem to take a joke or step outside of themselves in a different light. I think rather than focus on the fact that there's Jesus and there's some beer, they could use this [opportunity] to talk about a plethora of issues that could be called into question about advertising in the inner city."

No such luck: Due to what Gilmore calls a "policy against displaying damaged artwork," the billboard was dismantled Monday afternoon and will be returned to English. Gilmore says the city has no intention of filing a report with the police about the vandalism.

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