The news that a sculpture entitled “My Sweet Lord” (after the Beatles song, no doubt, crossed with Tom Waits)—due to debut at a New York Hotel and consisting of a six-foot tall anatomically correct chocolate Jesus—has been canceled, conjures up memories of the art show entitled “Sensation” that came to the Brooklyn Museum back in 1999. The latter featured the famous portrait of a black Madonna surrounded by elephant dung and what seemed to be a host of floating disembodied vaginas.
“Sensation” was a sensation partly because it sparked a famous moment for then Mayor (and now Presidential candidate) Giuliani, who felt the content was insulting to the Catholic Church and that it was inappropriate to display the painting in a museum receiving municipal funding. He threatened to cancel the museum’s lease, although this never happened and the show went on. Clearly, even back then, he had a true if spotty streak of cultural conservatism; that doesn’t seem to be a recent addition to his personality.
If you think about the hue and cry created by the Left and by liberals in their attempts to keep the museum open and the show intact, it’s interesting to contrast it with the respect shown to Muslim concerns about the Mohammed cartoons. By this time such a double standard shouldn’t be surprising, and it isn’t. Christianity is supposed to be able to take insults in stride; Islam is allowed a special sensitivity.
The hotel gallery’s directors have withdrawn the chocolate Jesus sculpture voluntarily, but not without a few choice words. After Bill (not Phil) Donohue, head of the Catholic League, called for a boycott of the hotel:
…[t]he gallery’s creative director, Matt Semler, said the and the hotel were overrun with angry telephone calls and e-mails about the exhibit. Although he described Donohue’s response as “a Catholic fatwa,” Semler said the gallery was considering its options amid the criticism.
Semler’s description of the Catholic group’s perfectly legitimate and nonviolent actions as a “fatwa” is also no surprise, I suppose. It’s another example of a combination of kneejerk moral and cultural equivalence. Fatwas, of course, are not limited to death threats for art deemed to insult Islam, but they conjure up that image in Western minds because of famous fatwas such as the death sentence pronounced on author Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.
But its fake “health warning” for “Sensation” (“The contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion”) not only gave ammunition to the Mayor, it cheapened the institution and hurt the art in the show as well. If the museum’s own advertisement describes the work as nauseating, is it a surprise that people should assume, sight unseen, that it is?
No, no surprise. But the surprise to me when I actually viewed that exhibit was that it actually was offensive—very offensive—in a host of unexpected ways not limited to the religious or the Christian. Read both articles and their descriptions of some of the “artwork” on display if you care to, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the point of it all was to be offensive.
Yes, freedom of speech means that these works should not be banned. But protests such as that mounted by Donohue’s group are squarely in the tradition of freedom of speech, as well. Let the marketplace decide, and in the case of the chocolate Jesus it has apparently decided “no.”
In the case of “Sensation” we weren’t so fortunate. Here‘s the museum director’s description of the exhibit at the time:
…this is a defining exhibition of a decade of the most creative energy that’s come out of Great Britain in a very long time. And that’s why we did it, these works are challenging, and thought provoking, and some are beautiful, some are very difficult to look at.
If that’s the most creative energy to come out of Great Britain, Great Britain is in big trouble . And if he says some of the works were difficult to look at, you can believe they were. A picture is worth a thousand words, but even a picture doesn’t begin to do justice to the experience of viewing “art” such as these works, to briefly describe just two:
Damien Hirst’s “A Thousand Years” composed of flies, maggots, a cow’s head, sugar, and water, another Hirst work, “This Little Piggy went to Market, This Little Piggy Stayed Home” a split pig carcass floating in formaldehyde…”
I seem to recall an entire room consisting of cow segments. Memory could be playing tricks on me, but the image I retain is of a large creature that had been cut into four or five sections, each of which was placed in a huge vat of greenish or bluish preservative behind plexiglass: one for the head, one for the forequarters, one for the midsection, and so on, crossing the entire room.
I suppose it was some sort of political statement. It also smelled, as I recall. Another sculpture didn’t actually smell, but it stank (and again, I’m relying on memory here, so I could have some of the details wrong): a large plaster installation of a group of children in a ring, displaying strange multiple penises coming out of odd and anatomically incorrect parts of their bodies.
At some point I just wanted out, and I voted with my feet: I left. My reaction surprised me at the time, but it wasn’t in the least political or religious. I had considered myself neither naive nor especially squeamish, but this stuff was not something I wished to spend time looking at; I’d had enough, thank you very much. And next time there is such a warning on an art show, I think I’ll respect it.
The larger questions are political and cultural. Why are Christian sensibilities not considered worth thinking about, while Muslim ones are respected? Well, it’s no puzzlement; if the Christians involved don’t actually turn the other cheek when insulted, they certainly aren’t about to blow up the hotel. And no, it’s not that certain people aren’t violent at times in the name of Christianity—witness the killings of abortion doctors—but these are isolated incidents.
The other question concerns what art hath wrought these days, and why? Is it so bankrupt—and so politicized—that it has become mere social commentary, the more shocking the better? Art doesn’t have to be pretty-pretty, or Norman Rockwell-esque; there’s a place for the ugly and the controversial. But when sensationalism and a sort of jaded “can you top this?” purposeful offensiveness is one of its major hallmarks, then the art world—and our culture—is in big trouble.