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December 21, 2004

Nearly 100 artists fail to see god at the ICA

Posted by Christie Davies

100 Artists See God
ICA, The Mall, London
19th November 2004 to 9th January 2005
Open Daily 12pm - 7.30pm

It would be more accurate if the exhibition, 100 Artists See God had been entitled "Nearly 100 Artists Fail to See God".

On the wall of the lower room just beyond the entrance the organisers have written a preamble to the exhibition to the effect that after September 11th 2001, God was everywhere on the media and in books but absent from art. Accordingly they invited many artists from many countries with diverse outlooks to contribute a picture about God. However, a large proportion of them are from godless California as are the organisers themselves whose official graffito announces:

We all live in a world that is profoundly influenced by concepts of God. These concepts come to us in part through representations. Art pictures God and that picture is pervasive.

Unfortunately the pictures on the wall opposite, hung close together in the manner of the eighteenth century do not depict God and they are neither pervasive nor pervaded. One is forcibly reminded that in California artists either do not to believe in God or else have wacky concepts of God. This is the infidel west coast that declined to vote for George Bush and his vision of Christian America. Needless to say none of the pictures relate in any way to the anguish of September 11th or the search for solace that followed, the solace that can only be provided by a personal God and not by a mere concept. God as a person is missing except as someone to be mocked.

Norm Laich's Clueless Jesus, 2002 has lined up a series of comic bearded heads with a crown of thorns to look vaguely like an inane caterpillar illustrating a book of stories for children. It is surrounded by a broad band of very well designed, bright coloured, simple glyphs, some religious, a cross, a book, bread, some not, a tractor, a factory, a highway, a syringe, a gun. It is both striking and funny and curiously enough not in poor taste. This is more than can be said for Martin Kippenberger's Fred the Frog Rings the Bell 1990. Fred is a man-sized Frog (an amphibian not a Frenchman) with pop eyes, warts, a couple of teeth and a long lolling-out tongue; it would be all rather amusing, except that Fred the Frog is nailed to a cross in a parody of the most central and sacred of Christian images. Whatever the artist's intentions, it will give offence to many.

So will Jim Shaw's Oil on Velvet, 1988 which has superimposed a large, white, dancing Snoopy, (Charlie Brown's dog ) on top of and thus obscuring a rug with a traditional picture of the Last Supper. What the Charlie Brown cartoonist, the Bible-learned Charles Monroe Schultz, who believed with perfect faith in the Resurrection, would have thought of this I hate to think. Charlie Brown and Snoopy inspired Schultz' friend , the Arkansas preacher man, the Rev. Robert Shaw to publish three didactic though amusing Christian books for children, The Gospel According to Peanuts 1965, The Parables of Peanuts 1968 and The Bible according to Peanuts 1990 and to make the television series God's Love and Peanuts, all with Charles Schultz' approval. Perhaps Schultz' estate should sue over copyright.

Raymond Pettibon No Title, 2001 is a conventional and traditional drawing of Mary in a blue robe holding Jesus and is inscribed "Let the likeness be correct and the colors bright, we leave the rest to you". Fair enough, but below the Virgin's feet it adds "Even her nylons were a light blue". Once again, whatever the artists intended, Christian visitors are likely to perceive these pictures as blasphemous and insulting.

The Christians themselves are also either objects of derision or of hostility. The level of the humour is set by Jeremy Deller's Bumper Sticker, 2003 that carries the American flag and the slogan "GOD LESS AMERICA". The 'B' has been taken out of BLESS so as to reverse the meaning – geddit? What chortles that must produce in progressive circles. Tee-hee. Ho! Ho! Yet why did they choose this bumper sticker? Why not "Baptist Free Zone" or "Nothing Fails Like Prayer", which are commonplace on the West Coast?

Among the many photographs here, there is only one of the people of America's Bible believing Christian core, the great majority of Americans and it is about as fair to them as Elmer Gantry. Catherine Opie's black and white photo They see God, I see Hate, 1984, shows a Christian rally in which men hold up placards. One reads "Jesus Saves. He is our only hope for Eternal Life. Or Burn in Hell". Next to it another declares "No! No! Homo!" and refers us to the relevant passages in Genesis and Leviticus that condemn sodomy. Why did the photographer choose this juxtaposition of two placards and why did the organisers choose this photograph rather than one that captured the essential goodness of fundamentalist America? Have they not read de Tocqueville's thesis that American goodness is the basis of American democracy and American greatness, the two factors that allow these artists to be free to mock religion? From Utah to Georgia there is no shortage of talented photographers who see God when they photograph those who see God. Why are they not represented here?

Nearly all the mockery and hostility directed against religion in the exhibition is at the expense of Christians and of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. A rare exception is Alexis Smith's Buddha's Feast, 2002, in which a tiny statuette of a smiling, blessing, grossly obese Buddha has been glued to the cover of a gourmet magazine showing a metaphorically smiling, blessing, grossly obese burger. Zen Buddhists will of course enjoy the paradox. Better a burger than a profoundly Zen "bucket of shit", though it is humanity's task to transform the one into the other.

Given that the exhibition was conceived in the aftermath of September 11th 2001, whose perpetrators may possibly have had some kind of tenuous connection with the Islamic world, why are the Muslims and their concept of God not so much as hinted at? Are there no homophobic Muslim believers in the story of the prophet Lut (Lot) to be photographed, no scenes of the Islamic punishment of sodomites and Blunkett-style adulterers to be recorded? If Jesus can be represented as a frog or a caterpillar why can not the Prophet be turned into a camel or a scorpion? Why are Jesus and Buddha mocked by progressive artists and not Mohammed? To ridicule Jesus is to ridicule God Himself and not simply His messenger.

We all know the reasons why. One is that local Muslims would do a Rushdie on the exhibition and possibly even do a Theo van Gogh on one of the artists. The other is that the British authorities would censor it. If the Blunkett inspired bill against religious hatred were already in force the organizers of this exhibition would have nothing to worry about. Christians who felt offended would be unable to convince the authorities that the artists, though mockers and scoffers, are preaching hatred of their religion. However, if Muslims were to complain about even a far lower level of ridicule, the offending items would be removed within minutes. If the Christians were to seek a legal remedy in this way, the entire artistic community of It's Grim Up North London would jam the Mall with demonstrators. They would quite likely also daub any churches within a three mile radius of the ICA with graffiti in bright primary colours. Muslim intolerance by contrast would be accepted by these upholders of artistic freedom with a mixture of fear and liberal hypocrisy.

There are, of course, many items in the exhibition which bear no relation to God whatsoever or else such an obscure one as to leave the viewer free to enjoy them as art for art's sake. Michael Craig-Martin's Untitled (God), 2002, is a Duchampagne urinal with bright pink rim, a bright green interior and tastefully arranged pink drainage holes. It will, of course, remind monarchists of the pilgrimage to Sandringham station to see the monogrammed urinal designed for Edward VII's personal use. Untitled (God) can no doubt be regarded as contempt for the deity as well as homage to the world's most influential atheist artist, Marcel Duchamp but in fact it is just an everyday object turned into an attractive decoration in a frame. Some may see things darkly in Roy Lichtenstein's Mirror, 1972 but most will be content to enjoy it. Some may see Damien Hirst's God, 1989, as a parody of healthism, the modern search for a new opiate of the people. It looks more like an ordinary five foot by four foot white medicine chest from a pharmacy stacked with amoxycillin, paracetemol, milk of Magnesia and Zantac, the banishers of everyday pain and disorder. [As I write I am enjoying an amoxycillin recovery from bronchitis induced by air pollution in the Mall]. We neither worship these things nor Damien Hirst's skilful reproduction and arrangement of them. Both pills and Hirst make life better but neither provide nor can provide central meaning to our lives. Christopher Williams Kodak Color, 2000 is a wonderful photograph of the inside of a dish-washer loaded with matching orange plates and bowls. It is a photograph we would all like to have taken but have neither the skill nor the equipment to do so. It is not, though, a symbol of the supposed modern god of efficient machinery for purity. Interpretation adds nothing to the delight we take in seeing recognizable everyday objects transformed into vivid patterns of shape, light and colour. They are neither satire nor symbols of the faith of Louis Dubedat.

There is, though, one exhibit that does ridicule the nonsense that has replaced religion in secular Europe; possibly it does so without the full understanding of the artists in our deconstructed world. It is Måns Wrange and Igor Isaksson's The Average Citizen, 1999, which is mapped out like a flow chart in a sociology textbook. It concerns a survey to find the average citizen of Sweden. Alongside the chart is a sculpted head of Marianne who does look much like an average unenticing Swedish woman. Yet it is a nonsense since although women are a majority of the Swedish population, on the most usual definition of average she ought to look nearly 50% male. The real absurdity comes in the flow chart where the social scientists record her opinions and then try to bring public opinion in general more into line with them. From a single figure representing Marianne, arrows emerge that connect with symbols for lobbyists and then with symbols for opinion makers and media channels and finally with a 'public opinion' represented by a clutch of ninepins. It is the procrustean Swedish drive for uniformity fuelled by social democracy, the highest expression of the famous 'Swedish envy'. The worship of the average person, the cutting down of the tall poppies, a Rawlsplug for the underclass – how very Swedish!

This reminder of hideously secular Sweden makes one appreciate how important and valuable to us God-fearing America is. The United States is now the only economically advanced society that is confident in its religion. The victory of George W. Bush confirmed that religion remains powerful in America. How the godless artists of California represented here must have feared and resented his victory! They would do well to reflect that the worst that Bush is likely to do to them is to deny them subsidies and also to ask themselves why there are no parallel exhibitions to theirs in Qazvin or Rasht, or even Homs and Hama. George Bush stands for America, God and freedom.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction 2004.

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This is a particularly appropriate review in the light of yesterday's going on in Birmingham - when the play Behzti had to be withdrawn due to the threat of violence from a Sikn mob. I do instinctively agree with Christie Davies point in this review that the only religion it has become acceptable to attack in the UK is Christianity - but I think he takes this point too far. Not many commentators have suggested that the goings on in Birmingham are appropriate - most commentators, even in The Guardian, have stuck up for the play - to quote Michael Billington of The Guardian: "I believe good art can survive oppression. The protesters have won an immediate, and disturbing, victory. But they cannot, as the history of drama proves, win the war against ideas."
Liberal intelligentsia also stuck up for Salman Rushdie.

And the ridiculing of Christian ideas is not always permitted - think of the withdrawl of Popetown by the BBC. I think the real difference lies not in the reaction of liberal opinion to attacks on different religions. I think the real difference is that - at least in the UK - there are no Christian mobs. There is no Christian threat of violence

Posted by: Helen at December 21, 2004 03:12 PM

There seems to be a belief among people in theatre, film, broadcasting, the newspapers, etc. (the Mediocrity?), that by serving up dollops of childish ridicule they are being "courageous" or "inventive". They may even consider themselves to be sharing in the glory of genuinely brave writers and artists who oppose(d) repressive regimes, at the risk of a knock on the door from the state security apparatus. However, our own Western media people, with their own apparatus to ensure who goes into the media and what comes out, seem to form a mutual appreciation society, stimulating each other by their offerings. There is no genuine intercourse (sensu traditionale) with other sectors of society. What a pity that a word rhyming with "cankers" has become so blunted in being used as a mindless term of abuse.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 21, 2004 09:26 PM

Helen says that the reaction of some leading liberal commentatators to the withdrawal of the play Behzti shows that liberal opinion is sometimes willing to stand up to religious censorship when it comes from a non-Christian direction.

The Telegraph today reports that Fiona MacTaggart - Minister at the Home Office for Race Equality, Community Policy and Civil Renewal - at first refused to condemn the actions of the mob which stopped this play. She claimed that this was not a conflict between censorship and free speach - but the free speech of 2 groups - the theatre and the protesters banning the play. This raises the question - if an evangelical Christian mob tried to close the exhibition Davies reviews at the ICA, is it conceivable that a Minister would make such an announcement? I think not.

Posted by: anon at December 22, 2004 05:01 PM
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