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March 08, 2005

Art and Sacrilege

Posted by Roger Homan

Professor Roger Homan will be writing regularly on religion in art for the Social Affairs Unit.

Religious hatred, or the hatred of groups on the basis of religious belief, is a disposition against which the British parliament is currently legislating. In the earlier developmental stages of derision and contempt, artists have played an active part.

Following protests by Sikhs, a play was recently taken off the stage of a Birmingham theatre. There was an immediate outcry from leading figures in the arts that freedom of speech had been suppressed. But was the offence of which Birmingham Sikhs complained a legitimate expression or a personal assault? The drama had been set in the sacred space of the gurdwara or Sikh temple and in the presence of the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, which is regarded not merely as a collection of pages but as one of the great gurus or teachers. When in theatre a rape scene is enacted in such a setting, something is happening that exceeds the contradiction of a point of view. For the faithful, an assault of the sacred is not a contribution to a dialogue but a personal injury.

We may consider two examples of visual images that have been unfavourably received by Christians. Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) is a painting executed in oil, acrylic and elephant dung on canvas. The photographer Andres Serrano dangles a crucifix in a jar of human urine, plays light upon it and produces an image that is pleasing to the eye until the mind registers how it is contrived. His photograph is explicitly entitled Piss Christ or Piss Light (1987). When it was first shown in the United States Senator Alphonse d’Amato staged a protest in the American Senate by tearing up a reproduction of this image and urging against the use of public funds to support the artist.

When the elephant dung Madonna went on tour as part of the Sensation exhibition and was hung in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani threatened to withhold public funding. An elderly man by the name of Dennis Heiner found it blasphemous and squeezed white paint from a plastic bottle over the surface of the dung. He was arrested. Paradoxically, the offence against the Virgin Mary is allowed to pass as artistic freedom while the violent response to perceived blasphemy is a criminal act. The sacred is no longer untouchable but art is. The material object is afforded an immunity not granted to the spiritual entity that it (mis)represents.

From such attacks Islam has emerged relatively unscathed and one would not wish that it were otherwise. Nor are its role models plundered in this way. Islam does not encourage the kinds of self-criticism to which Christianity has been particularly susceptible since the Reformation. And the institution of the fatwa seems to inhibit writers and artists who instead vent their freedom on the Christian faith.

Of course, profound meanings are claimed for these works. We are asked to believe that these are most sensitive images and that we betray our lack of understanding by being offended. There is in the exhibition catalogues an unconvincing tone of surprise that these images should prompt any kind of disturbance, coupled with the exploitation of such controversy in order to attract attention and visitors. The touring exhibition Sacred and Profane which set off from Sheffield in 2001 was presented thus:

This exhibition examines the response of contemporary artists to the apparently oppositional and yet strangely contiguous concepts of the sacred and profane. The duality, along with the attendant and fundamental concepts of good and evil, has been integral to Christian art and its manifestation for centuries.

What this strained and intellectualized view lacks is a sense of the importance of ideals in the personal management of everyday life. Models of perfection provide contemplative themes for coping, emotional survival and self-enhancement. The faithful look upon Mary Magdalene for the purity of her devotion; they are not well-wishers who choose instead to dwell upon the seamier side of her early life. So too the Cross and the Madonna are so intimately and preciously elements of popular piety that assaults upon them, however rationalized by the artistic elite, are experienced as violent intrusions of the private domain.

Freedom of speech is customarily exercised within a climate of social approval. One may be free to laugh at the hungry, the blind, the poor, to lampoon the frail and to expose the dispossessed in an unsympathetic way. The principle of free speech may license such expressions but happily the prevailing sentiments restrain them. The issue with rape scenes in gurdwaras and crucifixes in jars of urine is of this kind.

There is an ambiguity about the Cross and the Madonna. They are at the same time emblems of a faith whose historical and social role are legitimate subjects for critical comment. But they are also the apparatuses of private devotion and the means by which the faithful are sustained in their emotional and spiritual crises. In becoming aware of themselves as spiritual beings, people imbibe the ideals of the models they revere: thus an assault upon the images of those models is sustained as a personal injury. For many, sacred text and visual image have divine and inviolable properties to which reverence is properly accorded.

It is neither a noble or a worthy mission to defame the models that the Christian faithful cherish; still less is it a courageous one. Artists degrade themselves and their profession by savaging the numina of private piety.

Works cited
Ofili, Chris (1968 - )
The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996, Saatchi Gallery, London. Oil, acrylic and elephant dung on canvas.

Serrano, Andres (1950 - )
Piss Light, 1987, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Roger Homan is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Brighton and author of The Art of the Sublime: Principles of Christian Art & Architecture, (Ashgate, 2006).

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Western so-called artists may not mock Islam out of fear of retribution, but modern Western culture reserves its reverence only for irreverence and its only icons are iconoclasts. Our artists savage Christian symbols only because it offends believers and gets them the publicity that often leads to money. In other words, we pay for iconoclasm and blasphemy -- pay to read about it, pay to see it, and pay the panderers who provide it as middlemen.

One sometimes hears examples at BBC cocktail parties, where each dire comedy series is heralded as 'anarchic' -- a term of praise among those dull sorts of people. So we knock down and pretend to build. And artists continue to redecorate our culture, but in the style with which inmates used to redecorate their cells in the Maze prison.

I sympathise with the protesting Sikhs.

Posted by: s masty at March 9, 2005 11:36 AM

You suggest artists degrade themselves and their profession by savaging the numina of private piety. Just because you pray to something should not mean I must respect it as a believer would. Some worship bovines, yet others eat them. Should that be banned for it offends beleivers.

These symbols are not private, but public symbols of devotion which represent the religion, its dogma, beliefs, and intolerances to the general public. If I desecrate your copy of the bible, that's wrong, but I can do what I like with my own copy. Artists must contemplate and criticize religion as much as any other controlling forces in the world such as corporations, dictators, government, and pop culture...

They don't do it (only) for money, they are attempting to desanctify religion so it can be discussed rationally.

You can see what art and satire are when you flush icons at flush religious texts at

Posted by: Religious Sacrilege at June 23, 2006 07:09 PM

Hello {:^)

While it may be true that some so-called artists simply look for ways to shock and gain publicity, It is pompous of you to presume to know the intentions of any person and to lump all artists whose work you personally find appalling.

What you describe as defamation may be truly sensitive expression to the artist. To the true artist, Art is sacred and why not ? It has been said that there are as many Faiths in the world as there are Faith full people.

Perhaps you would serve your fellow human better by contemplating the message or meaning of these pieces of expression, rather than finding a way to comfortably compartmentalise them into your existing framework of judgments, before dismissing their creators out of hand and without a hearing. The matter of whether or not a piece of Art is sacreligious is entirely between the artist and God.

As Jesus is reported to have said " it is not that which enters the mouth which defiles, but that which leaves it ". Your vehement attack and that of another poster here certainly have more blasphemy about them than the images I looked at.

You appear to hold these images themselves sacred, while as Christians (presumably) you should be aware that to do so is blasphemous in itself. You also appear to be attempting to speak on God's behalf, yet your words have no ring of Love about them.

There are, I believe, certain people who take so seriously the view that killing is wrong, that they wear a mask to prevent flying creatures being inhaled and sweep the ground before them to protect the crawling ones.
Since these people hold all life sacred, perhaps they might consider Winnie the Pooh to be sacreligious, with his anthropomorphic habits and his parodies of natural bear-behaviour.

Or perhaps they're more grown up than that and simply forgive us our childish whimsies...

Take care,
- Tony -

Live, Love, Laugh & Learn

Posted by: Tony at September 23, 2006 01:38 AM
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