The Grim and Deadly Serious Business of Cartoons
In 1987 the publicly funded National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the United States gave artist, Andreas Serrano, $20,000 for his transgressive work of art entitled, Immersion (Piss Christ). The piece – heavy on concept if not artistry - is pretty much as described by its title. Mr. Serrano peed into a drinking glass, dropped in a cheap plastic crucifix and snapped a photograph of it which he then blew up to 60 by 40 inches. If you didn’t know the work’s title, it is at first glance a striking if somewhat kitschy image. Like a Cecil B. DeMille-type trick of the light, the contours of this strangely hovering crucifix are somewhat softened by the golden radiance of its surrounding atmosphere. I expect it must’ve been Serrano’s first piss of the morning; it takes several hours for the bladder to distill a batch of urine with that almost varnish-like richness of tone. And, even knowing the title, it is still possible - for this Christian at least - to find aspects of the work unexpectedly poignant. The tacky cheapness of the holy figurine somehow expresses Christ’s willingly assumed vulnerability in a way that a more accomplished figurine might not. And the overarching outrage of the piece itself – literally immersing Christ in piss – is not one jot worse than what we actually did to Him on that first Good Friday.
Many Christians, however, were not inclined to cut Serrano’s artwork that much slack. Protesters turned out to demonstrate at galleries where Piss Christ was exhibited and also lodged complaints with NEA for buying it in the first place. A few years later New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani voiced his objections when The Brooklyn Museum hosted two similarly offensive exhibitions. In 1999 he objected when that gallery showed Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary – a multi-media depiction of the mother of Christ which utilizes pornographic images clipped from magazines and hard-caked elephant poo (a work I saw and quietly loathed last year at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania). And in February of 2001 Giuliani complained again when the same museum displayed Renee Cox’s crude photographic pastiche of a Da Vinci masterpiece, Yo Mama’s Last Supper, which features a full length photo of a nude Ms. Cox standing at the centre of the table in the place of Christ.
In all these cases the protesters were dismissed as uncultured rubes and lectured to by the press and the courts. In rejecting Giuliani’s call for some sort of decency panel to oversee the selection of works to be exhibited in publicly funded galleries, the Supreme Court, evoking the primacy of the First Amendment, ruled: “Work like Ofili’s and Cox’s takes a particular, critical view of Catholicism. To some the critique may appear pertinent, to others it is disagreeable. Confronted with a forcefully expressed viewpoint that stands in opposition to their deeply held beliefs people often react emotionally by being offended. In accordance with the U.S. Constitution, however, those who disagree are free to express their outrage, but cannot impose their viewpoint on everybody else.”
The court was right. Freedom of speech and artistic expression are rendered meaningless if they can be upheld in this case or withheld in that case, depending on who complains or the vehemence with which they do so. But what a radically different song we’re hearing today from our social and intellectual gatekeepers regarding offense caused to Muslims by cartoonists who insist on the right to depict the prophet Muhammad. The first flare up occurred in September of 2005 when the Danish newspaper, Jylands Posten, published 12 cartoons, most depicting Muhammad, as a pushback against what they perceived as self-censorship inspired by fear of violent reprisal by Muslims. The newspaper’s point was soon proven when violent demonstrations broke out in Denmark and throughout the world (killing, it is estimated, more than 200 people) and fatwas were imposed on the 12 cartoonists who have all gone into hiding.
Canadian born columnist Mark Steyn has been a fearless advocate for pushing against the Islamist onslaught on free speech in the West and he called for cartoonists, publishers and editors to form a united front: “The minute there were multi-million dollar bounties on those cartoonists’ heads, The Times of London and Le Monde and The Washington Post and all the rest should have said, ‘This Thursday we’re all publishing the cartoons. If you want to put bounties on all of our heads, you’d better have a great credit line at the Bank of Jihad. If you want to kill us, you’ll have to kill us all’.”
That didn’t happen. Canada’s Western Standard (now defunct; sued out of existence by Canada’s Stalinist Human Rights Commissions) and satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris were among the few publications that showed solidarity with Jylands Posten, and republished the cartoons. A lot of people first learned about Charlie Hebdo’s existence this January 7th when Al-Qaeda jihadists stormed their office and murdered 11 cartoonists, writers and editors, and one policeman. Two days later when police were closing in on them, the jihadists holed up in a nearby kosher market and murdered another five people just because they were Jews. In the wake of the Charlie massacre, The National Post was the only Canadian newspaper with the guts to republish a whole array of the weekly’s covers, showing in the process that Charlie was an equal opportunity offender, merrily calling out Christians and Jews as well as Muslims.
This month the American wing of PEN (a literary fraternity that works to uphold freedom of speech throughout the world) decided to give Charlie Hebdo a special award and six of their higher profile members – including, disappointingly enough, Canada’s Michael Ondaatje – boycotted the ceremony. Past president of PEN, Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about persecution at the hands of Muslim extremists, having survived for nearly a quarter century with a fatwa over his head, beautifully skewered PEN’s weak-kneed deserters as, “Six authors in search of a bit of character.”
And last week in Garland, Texas, (again in homage to Charlie Hebdo) free speech activist Pamela Geller held her Muhammad Art Exhibit & Contest, which was stormed by two more jihadi hotheads who (may I be excused for thanking the merciful Christ?) only managed to plug one bullet into a security guard’s foot before they were both taken out by a 60 year-old officer with the Garland Police. The commentary about this in the blue chip American papers was uniformly depressing (The Washington Post’s shameless headline read: “Event Organizer Offers No Apology After Thwarted Attack in Texas”) pushing the angle that we’ve got to be sensitive to the feelings of just this one religion’s adherents when what they really meant was, “If we deny our most precious civil freedom and keep quiet about your psychopathic inability to take a joke, will you let us keep our heads?” I was delighted to see that last weekend’s Saturday Night Live had a very sharp skit inspired by the Geller event; suggesting that Steyn’s longed for solidarity may yet take shape though it won’t be led by a supine press.