I'm sure many readers are familiar with the controversies concerning art and religion. Some so-called "artists" appear to take delight in debunking religious belief and offending believers. Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" is a very well-known example of the genre.
Others would include Chris Ofili and his The Holy Virgin Mary, a so-called artwork depicting "a black African Mary surrounded by images from blaxploitation movies and close-ups of female genitalia cut from pornographic magazines, and elephant dung", and Martin Scorsese's film "The Last Temptation Of Christ". To my chagrin, the most vehement protests against the latter work came from Muslims, who revere Jesus as a prophet and place him second only to Mohammed. It says a great deal about the Christian churches, for whom Christ is central, when they make less fuss about his dishonoring than those who accord him a lesser place.
Now we hear of a certain Mr. Terence Koh, who's produced a statue of Christ with an erection (and done the same for Mickey Mouse and ET, for good measure).
As a Christian, I'm pleased to read that the gallery displaying his works in England has been charged (by a private citizen) with an offense against public decency.
A private prosecution has now been launched and the first hearing in what could prove a landmark case has been set for September.
Legal documents claim that the gallery has both offended public decency and breached Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.
The maximum penalty for outraging public decency is six months’ imprisonment and a £5,000 fine.
The documents claim that the foot-high sculpture was ‘offensive and disgusting’ and ‘likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to Christians and those of other faiths’.
Legal experts said yesterday that the hearing would be the first test of public decency legislation since the Government scrapped Britain’s ancient blasphemy laws in May.
A number of visitors to the Baltic exhibition, which was staged between September 2007 and January this year, said that a far greater outcry could have resulted if the statue had been of Mohammed rather than Christ.
The prosecution has been launched by Emily Mapfuwa, 40, an NHS administrator from Brentwood, Essex, who read about the exhibition in newspapers. ‘I don’t think this gallery would insult Muslims in this way, so why Christians?’ she said.
Father Christopher Warren, of the Roman Catholic cathedral of St Mary’s in Newcastle upon Tyne, said: ‘For Christians the image of Jesus is very special and to interpret it in a sexualised way is an affront to what we hold dear.’
Well, Father, I hope you're taking up a few second collections to contribute to Ms. Mapfuwa's legal expenses. That's the least you can do - and I'll gladly contribute something myself. I'm getting very fed up with the way others play fast and loose with what I hold sacred. I respect the right to free speech: but to deliberately insult and denigrate the most important beliefs, symbols, etc. in the lives of others, whilst it may be free speech, calls for a response. (I might add that religious extremists, such as the Westboro Baptist Church and its "God Hates Fags" campaign, are equally guilty of offending others. Bigotry and public denigration of others' beliefs should always be unacceptable, irrespective of its source, orientation or target.)
However, I find myself in a quandary. I'm an absolutist when it comes to the Bill of Rights. The rights it enumerates (and recognizes as pre-existing - i.e. not granted by the Bill of Rights, but merely codified and recognized by that means) are, as far as I'm concerned, inalienable. I can't support silencing someone merely because his or her speech (or art) offends me, or others who share my beliefs. The artist(s) can argue, quite plausibly, that whilst it offends me, it won't offend someone else.
So where do we draw the line? How can we take this sort of thing to task without doing violence to our most fundamental rights? Is there an answer at all? Does the right to free speech mean that "anything goes, anytime, anywhere, at no matter what cost", or are there limits - and if so, what are they? How are they to be enforced? Who's to do the enforcing, and how?
I'd love to hear your ideas.