Saturday, July 26, 2008

Of art and decency

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.



Rogue Medic said...

One problem with limiting offensive speech (in whatever medium) is that everyone seems to be offended by something. I find the restrictions on the speech to be the greatest offense. We can hope that the educated audience understands what the message is, sees it for what it is, and moves on. That being offensive for the purpose of being offensive will be self limiting, due to its lack of significance. For some Christians, the idea that an image of God exists is offensive. For others, the suggestion, that an image of God should be treated with reverence, is no different from encouraging the worship of a golden calf.

Flag burning is one secular example. I find the idea that the image of America is considered more important than the rights it represents, is offensive. These people are betraying what many have died to create and to defend. The Bill of Rights is not less important than a piece of cloth. Flags can be replaced, the Constitution cannot.

When believers care more about an image, than what they believe in, an even greater insult is delivered to the belief, than the non-believers ever could hope for.

Andrew C said...

I think people should be permitted to express anything they like, no matter who it may offend. For those of us who think his art is offensive, the solution is simple: don't go! Write letters of complaint to the gallery. Stage protests. All of these are legitimate forms of speech. Suing to prevent satire of our religion is ridiculous and a massive violation of free speech.

No religion should be protected by the government, and no one is obliged to hold anything sacred. All religion, and all reverence toward religion, should be voluntary.

Steve said...

My answer is that Government - both Federal and State do not draw the line. We, as US Citizens do.

I second Andrew's - letter writing, protests, withholding money by not attending. I love the idea of citizen "prosecution", but only in the civil court. Sue that pile of trash and the gallery that showed his work. make them defend it, so they will think long and hard about repeating something like that in the future.

My $.02.


Rich said...

I agree that the "art" is abhorrent.

BUT, as far as I am concerned, the lawsuit is an insult to freedom of expression. Suing in civil court is just as bad. It's still censorship.

Did you like the "Mohammed Cartoons" in the Danish magazine? To muslims they were just as bad. Were they to you?

Censorship always seems to be the right thing to do when YOU are offended by the material in question. It's not so much fun when you find yourself in the minority who is being censored - or when the government slides down that "slippery slope" and starts to censor anything that ANYBODY could find offensive.

I agree that writing letters and editorials, protesting, withholding money are wonderful ways of expressing your displeasure. I'm sure there are others.

The reason that these methods are unsatisfying when you are personally insulted is that they result in a dialogue but still allow the expression to occur. When you (or me or anybody else) is insulted, a dialogue isn't enough! The speech has to STOP. Make em PAY! --- It may be satisfying, but it isn't right.

Just think ... in places like Berkley CA, expressing approval for the military is considered offensive. How far was that city counsel from banning such expression the way they tried to ban the presence of the recruiters? These things all seem far fetched until they happen. Then we're stunned.

Furthermore, I think that allowing censorship, lawsuits etc. based on "Insult" is dangerous. After all the presence of unveiled women is an "insult" to some muslims. In the mosques they aren't allowed - next in the neighborhoods they aren't allowed - after all they are insulting the moslems they pass in the street. Pretty soon, muslim religious law is being used to limit non muslims.

Think about the recent, politically correct, proliferation of complaints based on "insult". These complaints are used to manipulate society. You can't say certain words like the "n-word" because you're white - it's insulting. Someone else can, because he's black.

Just the other day, during a discussion on that very topic, Whoopi Goldberg - on national TV - told the rest of the people on The View that "we live in different worlds."

I'll bet that pushes your buttons - it pushes mine. Yet, it really isn't different from limiting the speech or behavior of non-christians. The only difference is that you're a christian.

OK. Now where do you draw the line? Is the US a "christian country?" What about "freedom of religion?" The only safe way to draw the line is to make the rules even handed.

How do you make them even handed? You have to say no to manipulation, whether by race, by religion, or by any other group.

Insulted? When you boil it down, "insult" is the method the politically correct manipulators used to warp the system, and the country" to their own benefit. Insult to religion, insult to race, insult to gender. Enough! Whether you are a minority (muslim) or a majority (christian), being thin skinned should no longer be an excuse for playing the victim card.

The best long term solution, if not the most palatable for the person who is being insulted today, is to remove "insult" from the table. If I don't like a piece of "art" I don't have to see it. If I feel that God forbids me to drink alcohol, then I should abstain. I should NOT be allowed to forbid others from speech or activities on that basis.

Simeron Steelhammer said...

To answer your concerns is very, very simple.

Take a look at history and find it.

The worth of a belief is measured in what someone is willing to give up in order to hold onto it.

If these artists truely believe in thier work rather then want to slap someone in the face and offend them, thus gaining attention via media and other sources for free because their works don't warrant it otherwise, then let them face the penalties under the law for doing so.

This is not silencing their free speech. It is putting a price tag on that speech when it is not acceptable to the majority.

Silencing this speech would be seeking to kill the person and destroying thier exhibits.

Look back at the Christians who were persecuted so much through history. They were not silenced even though they WERE hunted, killed and thier property stolen and/or destroyed.

The Jewish faith has suffered the same for far longer then most realize. The Holocaust was just one more in a long line of such attacks on the Jews (and others).

Witches have been also persecuted, Druids in England, Muslims in the Holy Lands.

And it doesn't hold just to faiths/religions.

We are not allowed to run around nude in public because there are children and others that don't need to see such things. Child porn is another such thing as is beastiality.

Freedom of speech for someone ENDS where it BEGINS to impose on my right to NOT have to deal with it. I should not be made to see something I deem inappropriate or worse for myself or those within my care.

So now comes the issue with the case in point...

Is this garbage called art being displayed in a public gallery crossing that line?

If there were other displays there and this one was not kept seperate and in a manner that it could not be seen unless people WALKED to that area, similar to how many, many "adult entertainment" places do with books, magazines and such things then yes, take a mallet to thier fingers. They crossed the line.

If it was kept seperate and you had to put forth a fair amount of effort to go see the drivel...then no, they didn't cross the line and therefore, they should not have to face that mallet at all.

At least, this is how I see things.

To be offended you have to see what would offend you. This must be balanced with the fact that what offends you may or may not offend me.

Therefore, the rule of thumb is simple. How much effort does it take for you, who are offended, to see what offends you?

It's like a joke I heard about a little old lady that called the police about her neighbor running around his house in the nude all the time.

The police arrived and couldn't see below the man's stomach area when they looked.

"Well, stand up on this chair and you can!" came her reply... ;)

dave said...

If somebody were to say that the sky is orange-colored, purple-striped, with pretty green polka dots, and he wasn't Nat King Cole, how much time would you spend arguing with him?

If somebody is so wrong as to be absurd, arguing with him only legitimizes his position. If you contest him, you're tacitly agreeing that there's something to contest. The best response--if any--is, as Tam so eloquently puts it, "quiet, the grownups are talking."

When these so-called "artists" release their work, just ignore them. They're looking for shock and controversy; don't give it to them. Let them fade into irrelevance, just as would happen if a stray dog were to water the statue--would anybody even notice?

You mention the Muslim response and (lack of) Christian response. I think the Christian church's response is exactly right. Don't give them the forum to argue. Just treat them like any other petulant three-year-old and go about your business.

Rogue Medic said...

Simeron Steelhammer said...

"Freedom of speech for someone ENDS where it BEGINS to impose on my right to NOT have to deal with it. I should not be made to see something I deem inappropriate or worse for myself or those within my care."

Everyone will have to be prevented from expressing themselves.

"If these artists truely believe in thier work rather then want to slap someone in the face and offend them, thus gaining attention via media and other sources for free because their works don't warrant it otherwise, then let them face the penalties under the law for doing so."

The publicity often comes from the people who are offended. Few would hear of these, if the different religious groups did not publicize them.

You seem to want to put a religious test on speech - if you don't truly believe, it is not protected.

"This is not silencing their free speech. It is putting a price tag on that speech when it is not acceptable to the majority."

The whole purpose of the Bill of Rights is to protect the minority from the majority. The belief being that the majority, through force of numbers, needs no protection.

The Bill of Rights is not to determine what the penalty is, but to prevent penalties.

There is a very high cost to society for truly following the Bill of Rights. That cost is that we will be offended at times. What I find offensive, others will not. In order to protect my rights, I need to protect the rights of others.

There is no right to not be offended in the Constitution. If we try to protect people from being offended, we will suffer even greater penalties.

LabRat said...

I agree with (most of) the others: no legal constraints on how "offensive" speech may or may not be to the majority. I'm on board with basic decency laws- tasteless priapic statues shouldn't be out on the lawn where any passing Girl Scout troop could get a spontaneous education- but deciding expression is only free if the majority is comfortable with it is no free expression at all.

Besides which, there wouldn't be any such thing as "artists" getting lots of publicity the merits of their work don't deserve if there wasn't a controversy. Cracking down on them legally would reinforce their impression that they're being brave and challenging "the man" rather than doing the equivalent of farting in church. Without that attention, conflating art with shock value no longer has any purpose. They might actually have to go back to creating things that are interesting and beautiful to look at, which requires much more work and talent.

Nicki said...

There is no right not to be offended. It does not exist. If there was, most of us would be imprisoned, because someone is always offended by something.

I would say let the free market decide. If an idea or a work of art offends people, they should shun it, and art should not be subsidized by public funding, as that makes the artist accountable to taxpayers and gives those whose taxes pay for the offensive image the right to demand its removal. If the image is truly offensive to many people, the artist simply won't gain the profit from his work. Simple 'nuff.

SpeakerTweaker said...

Peter, I agree with you in that I find this sort of expression despicable. It's not art; it's marketing. I'll explain.

Ozzy Osbourne came charging into the American heavy metal scene as hard and fast as any drug-crazed rocker would. And it was about as successful, in the beginning. It was the Bible-thumping types (I assume everyone knows what I mean by that) rallying en masse and publicly decrying Ozzy's music for the eeeeevil that it was that made Ozzy the superultramegastar that he turned out to be. The sort of 'artists' out there who deliberately attack Christian values or Christ Himself are trying to catapult themselves into the spotlight in the same fashion. Do something to offend Christians, and get all the free publicity in the world.

Don't believe me? Just look at Marilyn Manson. Lousy musician (which is why he's faded into obscurity), but brilliant marketeer. Just piss off the religious reich and stardom takes care of itself.

To me, the way to draw the line is to be disgusted by it and not buy what they sell. Sooner or later, just like Senor Manson, everyone will figure out that he's a one-trick-pony who's fifteen minutes has just run out. That's the only way freedom can work.


Gay_Cynic said...

Briefly - I hold that, short of "shouting fire in a crowded theatre" and similar untoward acts, that freedom of speech is absolute, and must be so in order to have a free society.

Governments and mobs have repeatedly proven untrustworthy as censors - both because individual standards of what is offensive vary widely, and because once expression becomes prosecutable in civil or criminal courts it becomes far too easy to utilize such charges to bully, harass, impoverish, and imprison those with whom the "powers that be" disagree.

Freedom is a really neato concept - the trouble is we have to put up with other folks having it in order to secure it for ourselves.

Chas S. Clifton said...

If Koh had had any sort of classical education, he would know that Hermes is the god who should be depicted with an erection, not Jesus.

None of the Hellenes would be upset by such art work...

Anonymous said...

I wish that people would just laugh at this artist. He and others like him thrive on indignation, but they would wither at laughter.

Ky Person