By Helen Thompson
Return to the Politics index page
In the west we pride ourselves on the openness of our art. I dont doubt that all of us have at some point stood in front of a display case containing one scrunched up sweet wrapper, or a video installation showing a middle aged man waving his genitalia around, and stroked our chins thoughtfully. How wonderfully meaningful, we mutter, adopting an expression that demonstrates our fundamental understanding of this work. How enlightening, to be exposed to the inner workings of the human mind in all its surprising, expressive and unexpected levels of crazy.
If art, theatre or literature happens to baffle us, insult us, or make us throw up a little bit in our mouths, democratic governments still do not start labeling it degenerate like the Nazis did. No longer must our sensibilities be guarded by state censorship. Nowadays, there is nothing to stop us going to the theatre to watch Daniel Radcliffe get naked and blind six horses with a metal spike.
Yes, disturbing and disgusting things we may see. But the public cannot be exposed to ants crawling on a crucifix. The Smithsonian Institution made the decision in February to protect the publics impressionable psyches from the danger of creepy crawlies taking a stroll on a piece of wood. David Wojnarowiczs video A Fire in My Belly was removed from the National Portrait Gallery after the Catholic Leagues William Donohue denounced the work as offensive. The video formed part of the Hide/Seek Exhibition, which sought to explore the marginalization of gay culture. The decision to pull it from the exhibition led to a row between the Smithsonian and the Warhol Foundation, with the latter threatening to cut off its funding to the Smithsonian.
While Donohue was calling the video a form of hate speech, the Warhol Foundation was accusing the Smithsonian of bowing to the demands of bigots who have attacked the exhibition out of ignorance, hatred and fear. The episode captures the struggle between freedom of expression and incitement to religious hatred that has intensified over the last decade under the introduction of strict anti-terrorism laws in many Western democracies.
Religion is so engrained in every culture that it constantly encroaches on the artistic realm. It is a testament to the power of art in all its forms that writing a novel can cause a religious leader in someone elses country to pronounce a death sentence upon you. Salman Rushdies irreverent novel The Satanic Verses was banned in 11 countries and caused the Ayatollah Khomeini to announce a fatwa calling for Rushdies assassination.
Muslims are not alone in taking offense to artistic comments on their religion. Russia used the excuse of inciting religious enmity to punish Yuri Samadurov, the director of the Sakharov Museum, for his controversial exhibition Caution, Religion!, which was displayed in 2003. It ran for only 4 days before Russian Orthodox fanatics ransacked the show, claiming that the exhibition was blasphemous.
Great Britains own blasphemy law was only formally abolished in 2008. Blasphemy and blasphemous libel against Christianity were until then punishable as common law offences. The last prosecution under the law was in 1977, when the prolific author James Kirkup and the magazine Gay News published the poem The Love that Dares to Speak its Name. The poem depicted a Roman centurion having sex with Jesus after his crucifixion and purported that Jesus had also had sex with numerous other members of the Roman establishment. The law is still in force in Northern Ireland.
The abolition of this law in Great Britain was prefaced by the introduction of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006. The Act states that A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred. The onus here is on intention, and the Act focuses on written and spoken material. However, the interpretation section of the Act allows that written material includes any sign or other visible representation.
These kinds of laws have allowed British authorities to jail people like Abdullah el-Faisal, a Muslim cleric who was imprisoned in 2003 and deported in 2007 for encouraging the murder of Jews, Hindus and Americans. One would hope that these laws would work the other way too, and that if pastor Terry Jones had been British, he would have felt some legal repercussions for planned Quran burning day.
In the United States, the First Amendment makes it near impossible to introduce laws restricting freedom of speech. However, NGOs have demanded that the Federal Communications Commission investigate the use of hate speech in the media.
In fact, there is a wider clamour for increased censorship. Even on non-religious grounds, meddling citizens call for authorities to increase their vigilance on what the public, especially youth, are exposed to. One blogger, who visited a free art museum on the island of Tasmania, only to find the contents gross and disgusting, ranted: I do not need to be shocked and repulsed artificially when there is enough on the nightly news and in personal experience to shock and to sadden me. I am particularly disgusted that lovely Tasmania and historical Hobart would allow thisWhats the good purpose in exposing children and young people or anyone to these disturbing images?
The point that this blogger and Donohue missed, is that art operates on two levels. On one, it is an individual experience, open for interpretation in any multitude of ways. Donohue should not have the monopoly on interpretation, decreeing that this image is somehow offensive to all Christians. Many may interpret it differently.
The second level is that of society. The list of censored works over the past centuries reads like a hall of fame for the arts. James Joyces Ulysses and D.H. Lawrences Lady Chatterleys Lover, both considered today as central to the canon of English-language literature, were initially banned in the UK for their obscene content. The American writer Susan Sontag summed up the function of art that pushes at the boundaries of our societal norms: Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible. By getting us used to what, formerly, we could not bear to see or hear, because it was too shocking, painful, or embarrassing, art changes morals.
Considering that there was no legal imperative for the Smithsonian Institute to censor the Hide/Seek Exhibition, this incident sets a disturbing precedent. In a jumpy society, constantly on edge due to religious tensions and painful adherence to political correctness, freedom of expression through art could come under increasing pressure. This can only be a bad thing for any society, indicating a slide backwards towards intolerance and closed-mindedness, relying on the dangerous presumption that conformity is preferable to plurality.
Return to the Politics index page