Easter special: Shirley Dent doesn't buy the cheap iconoclasm of 'Chocolate Jesus', and Dave Hallsworth on all the dirty talk in the Good Book.
Artists who want to stir up controversy seem to have it easy these days. Taking a few pot-shots at a religious or political icon usually does the trick.
Recently, American artists have been particularly adept at kicking the right icons to cause a stir. Following hot on the heels of November’s minor kerfuffle in Clarkesville, Tennessee, when art student William Gentry exhibited a deep-fried American flag (more of which later), New York is back on track as king of the shockers: this week saw the pulling of Cosimo Cavallaro’s naked chocolate Jesus (titled ‘My Sweet Lord’) from The Lab gallery in Manhattan’s Roger Smith Hotel. And in a notable move to combine both political and religious icon-smashing, Chicago has had some Holy Week mumblings over a papier mâché depiction of Christ as Barack Obama.
But this shock art is about as radical as a stale episode of EastEnders. On both sides of the Atlantic, transgressive art has degenerated into a scripted soap opera: pull the transgression strings and watch the ‘I-am-offended’ mannequins swing into life and generate some undeserved publicity for you.
The whole ‘My Sweet Lord’ debacle has been marked by cynical play-acting on the part of the The Lab gallery whose stated purpose in life is ‘to confront modern relationships between art and audience…to force interaction between high energy “outrospective” exhibitions’ and ‘furious midtown foot traffic’. Well, bully for them, but who really is fooled by the disingenuous words of the gallery’s creative director, Matt Semler? He declared that, ‘We’re obviously surprised by the overwhelming response and offence people have taken’, adding that the Holy Week timing of the chocolate Jesus exhibition was a coincidence.
Yet The Lab’s concocted hullabaloo would have died a death without the right reaction and the right reactionaries. American Catholics have come in right on cue as that stage-army of fogeys. The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue has been widely quoted as saying, ‘This is one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever’. With Donohue sticking absolutely to the script of this confected controversy and reaching for the kill-all-debate victim card – ‘This is hate speech… a direct in-your-face assault on Christians’ – any discussion of the art is completely shafted.
You might expect a creative director to focus on the art and explain and defend a decision to show a particular work. Not so Semler, who wasn’t going to let his torch-song moment pass him by so easily and immediately took the bait from Donohue, accusing the Catholic League of issuing a ‘Catholic fatwa’.
Using the new taboo of ultra-sensitivity around religious matters, Catholics and other Christians try to impose blasphemy laws by the backdoor – why should any religious group dictate what should and should not be seen in public? In turn, this over-sensitivity to all things religious allows the radical art brigade to try to get a rise with some throwaway and yawn-inducing piece of irreligious art. And the upshot of all of this? The public never saw ‘My Sweet Lord’ because the exhibition was cancelled before its opening. Yet offers to buy the work have been pouring in.
Forget the commercial cynicism behind all of this – I’ll leave it to the priests to make that point in their Easter Sunday sermons. It’s the sham iconoclasm that should bother us. Despite the hate-speech slanging matches between defenders of art and defenders of the faith, both sides seem complicit in puffing up these anaemic scandals. Such scandals allow artists whose work is flimsy, boring and unimaginative to pose as radical avant-garde critics. And they allow religious leaders whose congregations are dwindling and who are regularly confronted with group crises of belief to do some good-old fashioned tub-thumping and knee-bending in defence of the faith.
Art may not in and of itself change the world. But it has often been an important part of looking at the world afresh, with new perspectives and new questions. What is striking about recent art controversies is that once you peel back the neat wrapper of ‘controversy’ there is absolutely nothing to get your teeth into. William Gentry’s deep-fried flag in ‘The Fat is in The Fire’ has nothing more to say for itself than America is fat: ‘I deep-fried the flag because I’m concerned about America and about America’s health’, said the artist. Cosimo Cavallaro has said quite a bit about The Lab gallery controversy but not that much about ‘My Sweet Lord’ itself. It’s almost as if there is nothing to ask or answer for outside of the controversy.
In a time devoid of visions of the future – and real arguments about those visions – it seems as if we are stuck with scripted and contrived controversies in relation to both art and free speech. ‘You haven’t got a cartoon Mohammed in stock? We’ll take a chocolate Jesus instead….’
World religions: A Great Coming Together
We all know that all the Western religions have a single base. You’d have thought they might be able to sort out their differences, given that fact. But everyone knows that sex can be the source of great disharmony – and there’s plenty of that in the ‘good books’.
For instance, Islam and Christianity both sprang from the initiative of the Archangel Gabriel. In the Bible, he brings the news of her insemination to the 14-year-old Jewish Virgin Mary, telling her that it would be the Son of God and would be named Immanuel. (Mary, like any sensible Jewish girl, had decided that Joshua was a much more suitable name.)
In the Koran, we read about how Mohammed was approached at his home by Gabriel and given the task of rallying support for Allah among the Arab masses. Not believing it was truly Gabriel, Mohammed devised a means of testing if it was indeed the archangel. Calling his wife in, he told her to straddle one of his knees while he sat facing away from Gabriel. ‘Is he still there?’ Mohammed asked his wife. ‘Yes’, she replied. He told her to straddle his other knee and asked again, ‘Is he still there?’ Again she replied ‘Yes’. She then opened her robe (both of them by this time a bit horny, no doubt) and his member entered into her. ‘Is he still there?’, Mohammed whispered. ‘No’, she replied. And so Mohammed knew it was indeed Gabriel, who had removed himself to give them privacy for their action. As Mohammed said, ‘A demon would have stayed and enjoyed watching us.’ (See A Glance into the Archives of Islam, by Slavoj Zizek.)
Towering over the three religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is the father figure of Abraham. Why can’t the three religions come together as one? Maybe Abraham is out of favour nowadays as more and more read his story.
Canaan, one of Noah’s grandsons, had seen Noah in a drunken stupor, lying naked in his tent. (What else he might have seen in that tent is never made clear in the Bible….) Noah, when told of this, cursed Canaan’s descendants to be the slaves of Noah’s other descendants (Genesis, 9:20-27). The descendants of Canaan grew into a tribe living in an area named after them, the Land of Canaan. God, no doubt hoping to liven things up, decided one day to give this land to Abraham. Abraham, his wife Sarah and his nephew Lot left for Canaan. However, when they got there they found it was enjoying a famine, so they turned about and went to Egypt (Genesis, 12:10). Bible stories are always convoluted, as we shall see.
Now Sarah was at this stage 65 years old, but still a good-looking woman. Abraham, realising this, said to her: ‘I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you they will kill me and take you for their wife. Pretend you are my sister.’ Pharaoh’s officials saw Sarah and took her to Pharaoh’s palace. Pharaoh ‘treated’ Abraham well for the services of his ‘sister’. Sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants and camels were loaded upon him while the Pharaoh had it away with Abraham’s wife. Not a squeak from Abraham (as we later discover, Sarah is barren as well as of pensionable age, so Abraham must have had the ‘slice off a cut cake’ attitude).
God isn’t too happy about Pharaoh’s shenanigans, however, and brings down a plague of ‘serious diseases’ (the mind boggles) on to Pharaoh. ‘Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife?’ Pharaoh angrily asked Abraham (well, you would expect a decent chap to tell). ‘Clear off out of Egypt and take her with you!’ Abraham cleared off back to Canaan, which had now recovered from the famine. Abraham went with everything he had gained. ‘Abraham had become very wealthy in livestock, silver and gold.’ (Genesis, 12: 11-20)
Actually, at this stage ‘Abraham’ was called ‘Abram’ and ‘Sarah’ was called ‘Sarai’. It wasn’t until some time later, when Abram was 100 years old and Sarai 90 years old, that God decided he would give them the Land of Canaan (Genesis 12: 1-5). Now it would be necessary that they breed enough to fill it. With Sarai being barren and 90 years old to boot, this turned out to be a problem.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Sarai told Abraham to put one of the servants ‘in the club’. This was soon done and a son Ishmael was born. Hairy, rebellious, and anti-social, like many sons of old parents, everybody was soon fed up with him. God decided to step in, and made Sarai pregnant. How is not exactly explained, but you can bet your life it was something painful. She carries to term and gives birth to Isaac, whom God decides is the one who will do the job. The Covenant between God and the Jews is signed, every male is circumcised, Abram renamed Abraham and Sarai renamed Sarah. All clear now? (Genesis, 15:2-5, Genesis, 16-17, Genesis, 21:1-7)
So, if you want to start a new world religion, take a tip (and the Jews like to take a tip while the boys are still young): keep the sex out of it; it only messes things up. On the other hand, you might decide that the whole religion thing is just too bizarre to contemplate.
Dave Hallsworth has previously argued that the Bible is holy shit. But Neil Davenport questioned whether religion was the root of all evil. Brendan O’Neill asked whether New York columnist’s infantile piss-take on a dying Pope John Paul II was dead funny. Josie Appleton argues that Daniel Dennett’s book on religion doesn’t demystify it so much as dehumanise it while Michael Fitzpatrick was repelled by Richard Dawkin’s polemic against religion. Or read more at: spiked issue Religion.
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