Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Art & Its Suppression

This has been making the rounds recently:
"Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ Destroyed in Avignon, France"

I recall the controversy when “Immersion Piss Christ” was first exhibited back in 1987, and discussions of it when I was working on my degree.

It is generally offensive to anyone who grew up in a culture that has reverence for Christian traditions, once the viewer understands the media used in creating this photographic image.

Viewed from another perspective, it's beautiful. Ghostly and shrouded in jewel-like amber, it resembles a heavily lacquered antique icon that might be discovered in an out-of-the-way tchotchke shop. For lovers of iconography, this would be a find, indeed. And, according to Serrano, it was created with reverence.

Among the many who might be offended by works such as this, there are those who feel justified in destroying an artist's work, especially when it comes to subject matter that is perceived as sacreligious. 

They, in the glory of their righteous indignation, are missing a finely-made point, which is:

The purity of the original message of this particular prophet has been polluted by ritual, idolatry, and myth-making in a highly successful effort to gain and hold power over those who believe. And, secondly, to gain control over the thoughts and behaviors of these same believers.

If the intention of the vandals was to stifle creative expression, then based on the amount of attention this act has engendered, I would have to conclude that the opposite effect has been attained. More views, more thought, and more discussion on freedom of artistic expression, religious and cultural tolerance, and the possibility that an image is just an image, with only the value that we human beings give to it. (Photo by BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images)

Destruction of art as a subject that can be approached from a number of directions, and begs the questions: What is art and who decides? Followed byIs destruction of art ever justified? (After it's been decided that it is art, of course.)

I am remembering Diego Rivera's monumental labor-themed mural in Rockefeller Center that was destroyed in 1933. It held within it a portrait of Lenin and was labled “propaganda", to which Rivera shouted, “All art is propaganda!” *
* The Encyclopedia of Censorship, J. Green, Facts on File, pg. 254

I'm also reminded of the Taliban's destruction of the giant stone Buddhas in Afghanistan some years back. Different scale and disturbing on many levels, but primarily as cultural and historical losses, and as a cause for reflection on religious extremism and its consequences.

With some irony, this brings to mind the destruction of Saddam Hussein's arrogant and grossly over-sized (to my way of thinking) statue in Iraq. Was that justifiable destruction? Or, is it essentially the same as destroying the Buddhas?

Finally, I consider Ai Weiwei, dissident Chinese artist and internationally renowned architect, who was arrested when boarding an airplane in an attempt to leave Beijing.

He and his supporters, and others like Weiwei that the Chinese government perceive as threats to its control, have been arrested or detained. This appears to be a crack-down in an effort to suppress the rumors of a ‘Jasmine Revolution’, modeled after the uprisings in northern Africa.

Story of Ai Weiwei's arrest here:
Ai Weiwei arrest: Lawyer and designer disappear
A protester urges residents to sign their names to support release of detained artist and activist Ai Weiwei in Hong Kong on April 8. AP photo published in Mail & Guardian online

We live in a time when we can know in an instant what's happening on the other side of the planet. Let's hope, and even pray, that the future will bring more freedom and tolerance and less suppression and intimidation. It would be a lot easier on all of us if totalitarian regimes would just give it up.

Suppression does not work for long and has built within it, its opposite: the urge toward freedom. This drive, whether political or artistic, is universal and roars through civilization in response to oppression. I want to hear a roar for Ai Weiwei and people like him. And, I want to hear a roar in support of artistic expression.

Whether we like it or not doesn't matter
. What does matter is an artist's right to create what is in his or her heart and mind.


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