Image unrelated; included for Caturday
Stop me if you have heard this one before, but some conservative politicians and religious leaders are getting all outraged about some works of art. This time, the works of art are two unsuccessful contenders for an art prize in Australia; those outraged include the Prime Minister of Australia and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney.
Yes, of course you have heard this before. You will remember Piss Christ and Virgin in a Condom, amongst others. Every so often, an artist will make a work which comments on some aspect of Christianity and various conservatives will get in a fluster. It is a familiar pattern of stimulus-response. Sadly, it is only on these occasions that Art is noticed by the media.
What is surprising in this case is that the exhibition which is showing the offending works is not of the usual elitist, secular-humanist, liberal kind. The show is an exhibit of works submitted for the Blake Prize for Religious Art, which was set up by a Jesuit priest, a Jewish businessman and a Catholic lawyer; I wonder if they ever went to a pub together and caused an hilarious joke to happen. The prize was established to "encourage artists of disparate styles and religious allegiances to create significant works of art with religious content."
Well, now look what they have done. Prime Minister John Howard has described the two offending works as "gratuitously offensive," while Cardinal Pell thinks the prize has "probably outlived its usefulness." In all the excitement, the works which were awarded prizes, none of them offensive (or avant garde for that matter) have been overlooked.
Now, if I were an Australian Christian, I would be more offended by the insult to my religion made by the fundamentalist pastor who defended having sex with his two daughters on the grounds that he was teaching them "how to behave for their husbands when they eventually married, as dictated in scripture." I might also be angered by the self-proclaimed prophet who showed a girl letters from the Virgin Mary telling her to have sex with him. I might also feel more than a little uneasy that my Prime Minister spends so much time hanging out with Hillsong, the corporate church founded by a man who had unorthodox methods of curing homosexuality and which now is run as a successful business operation by the son who usurped him.
But then, I am neither Australian nor a Christian. I do know more than a little about Art, though, and I can recognise a pre-fabricated art scandal when I see one. Art is always a ready target for conservative outrage. Mostly, the indignation is of the "tax-payer's money" kind: the makers and curators of Art are portrayed as a pampered elite who live on the taxes paid by ordinary people who don't know much about Art but know what they don't like. The Art elite are depicted either as knaves, who try to trick the public with works that a five year-old could make, or as fools who themselves are tricked by their vanity. Every so often, however a work of art offends somebody's deeply-held beliefs, usually religious ones.
So it was with Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's own urine. It won a prize in a competition that was sponsored, in part, by the National Endowment of the Arts, the US federal body which funds artistic projects. Enter Senator Jesse Helms, who mounted a sustained campaign against the NEA. So it was too with Tania Kovat's Virgin in a Condom, which provoked that Christian gentleman Graham Capill, among others, to righteous wrath when it was exhibited at Te Papa.
As always, there are protests and demands. The politicians and religious leaders milk the issue for all the airtime they can get out of it. Their constituents are led to believe their lives are controlled by a decadent elite which scorns their values. The artists are accused of mocking religious beliefs and of opportunism, although it is the conservatives who made the works a political issue.
So it is with this affair, although with some peculiar local differences. As I noted above, these works were entered in a prize for religious art, so the charge of mocking religion hardly has any weight. Another fact which hardly can be avoided as that both works mix Christianity with Islam. Yes folks, it is the culture wars again. Not surprisingly, TBR has picked up the issue; so has columnist Andrew Bolt, who manages to throw homosexualism into the mix, before concluding that what is at stake is our Civilisation.