Commenter Chubinela1 raised an interesting point in the comment section of my column yesterday, in which I praised the Institute of Contemporary Art for screening the film "Fire in My Belly." Two weeks ago the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery pulled the video, created by the late David Wojnarowicz, because some conservative critics called one of its reoccurring images — ants crawling on a crucifix — offensive. Chubinela1 writes that the incident exposes "a double standard among liberals: bash Christianity at every turn while bending over backwards not to offend Muslims."
But this incident goes deeper than the well-rehearsed arguments between liberals and conservatives. The line separating blasphemous from acceptable imagery in both Islam and Christianity varies greatly, depending on the nature of one’s beliefs. Both religions have had iconoclasts – people who take the injunction against “graven images” very literally – and both have strong traditions of finding religious imagery perfectly acceptable. On the whole though, Islam has tended to be stricter about imagery; thus, the potential for offense tends to be greater.
That strictness has tempted many people who find aspects of Islam repressive to produce imagery that is deliberately provocative as a kind of protest against what they see as repressive. In many cases threats of violence and violence itself have ensued. I strongly condemn that violence, those threats.
However, I respect the views of people of any religion who find certain images offensive or sacrilegious, and I would defend their right to express their feelings of outrage and to protest the display of such work. That includes politicians, who have the added right, if they can find the votes, to legislate against museums who choose to show such images (after all, that’s democracy.)
But I myself would condemn such actions. I would also protest most cases of censorship – particularly censorship on grounds relating to blasphemy – because I believe passionately in freedom of expression: It is the best defense against political repression we have. Anyone who has celebrated the fall of Communist and other totalitarian systems will surely understand this.
Christians in modern democratic societies – and I think this is to their credit – have on the whole been less inclined to resort to threats of violence in response to images that offend them. (However, we must remember that many Christians in recent times – and floods of them in the past – have desecrated, sacked, pillaged, taken hammers to, thrown acid at, et cetera, images that they deemed offensive).
Museums in a modern secular state should not, in my opinion, give too much thought to the question of whether a work might offend some people. Rather, they should focus on the artistic merit of works of art. (A general rule of thumb is that if a work is out to shock and offend and nothing more, it will not have much artistic merit).
However, museums are also real buildings with real staff. So they must be realistic. If they have good reason to believe that exhibiting certain works of art will put them and their staff in jeopardy, then to me it makes sense that they exercise extreme caution when deciding whether to exhibit that work.
If they make a judgment that that kind of danger is more likely to emerge from Islamic extremists than Christian extremists, then that is their right. But it’s a question merely of likelihood, isn’t it? They would be foolish to imagine that the danger might come from one side only.