Just like about everybody else on this planet, I am at the very least thoroughly disgusted by Pastor Terry Jones and his followers. Now there seems to another in Tennessee who thinks burning Korans is an idea whose time has come. I have to remind myself that these whackjobs don’t represent our country, or even the region in which they live. Yet for every one that actually carries out or talks about carrying out such hatred, there are probably another six or seven, if not more, who feel exactly the same way.
In the performance of Swimming to Cambodia, Spaulding Grey discusses the conditions and events that led to descending of the Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge upon the people of Cambodia. Spaulding ends the scene with this:
So five years of bombing, a diet of bark, bugs, lizards and leaves up in the Cambodian jungles, an education in Paris environs in a strict Maoist doctrine with a touch of Rousseau, and other things that we will probably never know about in our lifetime. Including perhaps an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America, set the Khmer Rouge out to commit the worst auto-homeo genocide in modern history.
It would seem that we in the U.S. has had that invisible cloud of evil land here, stirring up religious bigotry and racial hatreds that were just beneath the surface.
Such is the sad situation that we need to have the President of United States remind us, as he did in today’s press conference.
We’ve got millions of Muslim Americans, our fellow citizens in this country,” Obama said. “They’re going to school with our kids. They’re our neighbors. They’re our friends. They’re our coworkers. And when we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?”
He continued that there are also Muslims fighting in Afghanistan: “They’re out there putting their lives on the line for us, and we’ve got to make sure that we are crystal clear for our sakes and their sakes — they are Americans, and we honor their service.”
Let me say that I believe, like Mayor Bloomberg, that Pastor Terry Jones and anyone else of his ilk have the right to burn whatever books they want. Just like the Neo-Nazis have a right to have a parade. The freedom of expression is of paramount necessity in a healthy democracy. It has to be protected even when what is being expressed is vile and filled with hatred. Of course, that freedom also extends to everyone who finds fault with the expression.
There are two things Pastor Jones makes clear: (1) it is pretty easy to do something that would get a whole lot of people offended and upset, and (2) it is pretty easy in today’s media/internet world to reach a whole lot of people who might get offended and upset.
Although we have always needed to be mindful of what we place out there into the world through our words and actions, through our writing and our art, in today’s world we have to be all the more mindful.
This is not to say we should censor ourselves just because someone might be offended or upset by what we do. Sometimes the fact that there are people who have gotten into a tizzy means we’re doing the right thing. Thankfully Rosa Parks didn’t decide it was best not to upset those white folks on the bus that day. And I am one of those who believe the Park51 Center is doing the right thing by staying put. As Obama said in his press conference:
What that means is that if you could build a church on a site, you could build a synagogue on a site, if you could build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on the site.
It is just that simple. Or so one would think.
Yet in one tangential thought in all brouhaha over the Koran burning and victory mosques, I thought of Piss Christ. You might remember that brouhaha in 1989 over the 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano. It depicts a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine. Much of the outrage over the work was directed at the National Endowment for the Arts which co-sponsored the competition in which Piss Christ won the “Awards in the Visual Arts.”
The controversy around Piss Christ was part of the larger cultural wars that were in full swing those days. Jesse Helms led the attack against the NEA, but it was as much cover for a more broad attack on what was seen as decadent Liberal culture that destroying this country. For many Piss Christ was seen as an attack on Christians and their faith. And in spite of people like Helms, I would say I could understand how they might see that. Just as I understand how in a moment of emotional reflex, there are those in New York who had an issue with Islamic cultural center/mosque being built next to/on ground zero.
A lot of verbiage was spent on Piss Christ (one can only imagine what would have been generated had the controversy erupted in the age of the blogosphere). Here is one defense of the work by Damien Casey, with links at the top of the article to a rebuttal done by Michael Casey, Anthony Fisher, OP, and Haydan Ramsay, and then Casey’s reply to their criticism.
At the time most of the debate centered on the value of work (and whether tax dollars should support it), rather than whether Serrano had the right to create it. I suppose one could hear people say “He has the right to do it, but should he do it?”
I am definitely one that supports an artist’s intent to remain true to their vision. At the same time that doesn’t mean that the artist should question and reflect on that vision, and the manner in which it is ultimately made manifest in the work. And I don’t think an artist is somehow selling out or being somewhat less pure if he or she takes into consideration how it would affect others. Serrano is an intelligent man and I don’t doubt he knew some would see dunking a crucifix into urine would be as a desecration of something holy. Yet in this interview he does seem to discount those who would see it as such:
Coco Fusco: Your use of Catholic symbolism stands out in part because you are operating in a predominantly Protestant context. An attraction to the sensuality and the carnality that you bring out in your Catholic iconography can develop, since Protestant symbolism looks rather pale by comparison. How would it affect your work to be exhibited in a Catholic context?
Andres Serrano: I have always felt that my work is religious, not sacrilegious. I would say that there are many individuals in the Church who appreciate it and who do not have a problem with it. The best place for Piss Christ is in a church. In fact, I recently had a show in Marseilles in an actual church that also functions as an exhibition space, and the work looked great there. I think if the Vatican is smart, someday they’ll collect my work.
CF: Does your interest in Catholicism have to do more with an attraction to the iconography or is it about wanting to make a social or political comment about what the Church represents?
AS: Look at my apartment. I am drawn to the symbols of the Church. I like the aesthetics of the Church. I like Church furniture. I like going to Church for aesthetic reasons, rather than spiritual ones. In my work, I explore my own Catholic obsessions. An artist is nothing without his or her obsessions, and I have mine. One of the things that always bothered me was the fundamentalist labeling of my work as “anti-Christian bigotry.” As a former Catholic, and as someone who even today is not opposed to being called a Christian, I felt I had every right to use the symbols of the Church and resented being told not to.
CF: At the same time you have expressed concern about the Church’s position on many contemporary issues.
AS: I am drawn to Christ but I have real problems with the Catholic Church. I don’t go out of my way to be critical of the Church in my work, because I think that I make icons worthy of the Church. Oftentimes we love the thing we hate and vice versa. Unfortunately, the Church’s position on most contemporary issues makes it hard to take them seriously.
CF: So you do see yourself carrying on a tradition of religious art?
AS: Absolutely. I am not a heretic. I like to believe that rather than destroy icons, I make new ones.
Would we feel differently if the person performing the Koran burning labeled him or herself an artist rather than a pastor? If in an interview he or she said:
Look at my apartment. I am drawn to the symbols of Islam. I like the aesthetics of a Mosque. I like Mosque furniture. I like going to a Mosque for aesthetic reasons, rather than spiritual ones. In my work, I explore my own Islamic obsessions. An artist is nothing without his or her obsessions, and I have mine. One of the things that always bothered me was the fundamentalist labeling of my work as “anti-Islamic bigotry.” As a former Muslim, and as someone who even today is not opposed to being called a Muslim, I felt I had every right to use the symbols of Islam and resented being told not to.
Would the outrage against the burning be any less justified? Is the intent of the artist important? How do we weigh the extent to which others offended? What if it a flag of a country rather than a religious icon or text? And the artist is a foreigner? A citizen? I don’t think we can set hard and fast rules in which to guide us in all the infinite possibilities that might emerge. We can have our principles like freedom of expression and respect for others. Trying to balance all of those principles is the real tricky part.
I guess one big question we need to answer is whether this work or that performance will help us move closer to a better world or further away. Unfortunately, people like Pastor Jones sometimes think performances like burning the Koran is just exactly what is going to help us get to that better world. Democracy is a messy thing.