Blasphemy, Culture, and Reasonable Arguments
In 1988, Martin Scorsese directed The Last Temptation of Christ. This resulted in much controversy. Thomas Lindlof wrote a book called Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars that does a very good job describing the various protests that followed the announcement, production, and release of this movie.
In 1989, Andres Seranno exhibited his picture “Submersion (Piss Christ)”. This resulted in a fairly vigorous debate about the nature of art, religion, culture, and, of course, how taxpayer dollars were being used by the NEA.
In 1999, Chris Ofili exhibited his painting “The Virgin Mary” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. This resulted in protests and a lawsuit. (The painting had the Madonna surrounded by snippets of pornographic pictures, and elephant dung was among the media used.)
While there are many parallels between these three works of art, the one that I find notable are the defenses given to the Social/Religious Conservatives protesting them. The defenses were all of a kind: decrying censorship (and “chilling effects”), emphasizing the right of Free Expression, and pointing out that people do not have a right to not be offended.
We could shrug and leave things right there, I suppose, except for a comic novel that was published in 1988 by Salman Rushdie. After the publication of the book, Ayatollah Khomeini put a fatwa on Rushdie calling on all good Muslims to kill Rushie or, at least, point him out to someone who could. The response to this fatwa in the west can be compared with the responses to the Social/Religious Conservatives protesting Last Temptation, Serrano, and Ofili. While there was the familiar chorus of voices who argued against censorship, sang the praises of Free Expression, and pointed out that people do not have a right to not be offended… there was another tune playing. Notably, there was an argument being put forward that we, as a culture, ought to respect the differences between our two cultures and go out of our way to not offend the devout. “To be sure,” it was said, “we do not condone the fatwa… but a fatwa was a perfectly predictable response to a publication of this nature. Prior restraint could have avoided this situation.”
Which, as arguments go, is a perfectly fine one and makes a great deal of sense. We hear this argument again in the wake of Denmark’s experiment with Mohammed political cartoons and now with Terry Jones and his tendency to burn Korans. We, as a society, ought to respect cultural differences and Muslims have customs and taboos that are very different from our own and we ought not go out of our way to antagonize them. There is another argument (as arguments go, a perfectly fine one and one that makes a great deal of sense) that says “if you violate these taboos, people will die.”
Not only does it make sense, it’s sadly accurate. When Terry Jones burned a Koran, there were riots in Afghanistan and people died. When the Mohammed political cartoons were published, people died. People who have translated Satanic Verses have been attacked and one has been murdered. Very recently, Terry Jones said that he was going to Dearborn to burn a Koran and, again, people pointed out that if Terry Jones does this then the consequences will be on his head.
This argument makes a great deal of sense.
On April 18th (Palm Sunday), 2011, three men entered the Lambert Gallery in Avignon, threatened guards, and vandalized Serrano’s photograph of the crucifix submerged in urine before running off. Museum workers report that they are receiving death threats.