The Playgoer: The Cartoons

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Cartoons

I found interesting NYT art critic Michael Kimmelman's take today on the Mohammed cartoons, examining the larger context of how art in so many examples can incite such violence. (I also agree, though, with much of Andrew Sullivan's skewering and shaming of him, too, for letting the protestors off the hook.) Kimmelman focuses largely on just the visual arts, but does reference other genres, including Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi (which he can't even bother to mention by name!). He's right to ask:

Over art? These are made-up pictures. The photographs from Abu Ghraib were documents of real events, but they didn't provoke such widespread violence. What's going on?
In fact, though, it may be naive to suppose the "provocation" of such violence comes from the art alone in these cases. Sullivan today also cites blogger Omar at "Iraq the Model" reminding us of all of some essential context to this outburst:
You know that those cartoons were published for the 1st time months ago and we here in the Middle East. [...] I think the reactions were planned to be exaggerated this time by some Middle Eastern regimes and are not mere public reaction. And I think Syria and Iran have the motives to trigger such reactions in order to get away from the pressures applied by the international community on those regimes.
In other words, these kind of "outrages" are so often manufactured. Not that the participants are not outrages over something. But I wonder how many of these demonstrators have even seen the comics they're burning. Not that that would change their minds. But the position has been pre-set, as if from above. The marching orders have been given, "we're having a protest." We know how this works all too well on these very shores. From Corpus Christi to the Brooklyn Museum "Sensation" to Last Temptation of Christ to Satanic Verses... the pattern is recognizable:

1) Work of art is released/announced with at first no controversy.
2) Some organization or powerful individual "spokesman"--who has not read or seen the work in question--holds a press conference or issues a release denouncing "religious bigotry." (Often accompanied by some unseemly remark about "Imagine if this were the Jews, the Blacks, etc...").
3) Pile-on ensues. As the controversy becomes a media story, the call goes out to all like-minded advocacy groups: "you will get on television if you protest this." Everyone imaginable is forced to comment and take a side. "Crossfire" (when it was on) has a field day. And most public figures, who don't care a whit about art, take the path of least resistance and side with "people of faith." Who wants to be on the side of blasphemy.
4) The presenters/publishers of the work shit their pants (more over loss of sales than loss of life) and either cancel, postpone, or rush the work into quick release to minimize damage.

A question that gets lost in all this, of course, is: what made the work so purportedly "offensive" in the first place. Especially since the opponents always protest a description and almost never engage with the specifics of the work itself. Thus, Chris Ofili's incendiary painting was widely characterized as "the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung", as opposed to what any rational person (a "virgin viewer") would see prima facia: a stylized representation of an African woman surrounded and adorned by (not "smeared" over her face, for instance) clumps of slightly smelly but indeterminate earthy substance. McNally's Corpus Christi was clearly not meant as a demonization of a perverted Jesus "sodomizing his disciples," but a quite hagiographic modern retelling of the Gospels as an allegory of tolerance and universal love. (And obviously McNally doesn't consider a "gay Jesus" a bad person!) That both Ofili and McNally are Catholics, of course, was considered irrelevant by all sides. Ditto Scorsese and Last Temptation, in which a 5-second cutaway of Jesus imagining sex with Mary Magdalene was exploited and exploded into a supposed cinematic hate crime.

I am deliberately not focusing on the difference between violent and "peaceful" outrage, which is obviously important if you're, say, Salman Rushdie. I'm frankly more interested in how so many commentators (including Kimmelman) take comfort in how our own artistic free-speech battles in the West are supposedly at least "civilized" somehow and even quaint ("comically tame," Kimmelman now calls the Ofili faceoff). Yes, I'd rather be an artist in American than Afghanistan. Duh. (Or Denmark, sadly.) But let's not understate the violent intentions of the scoundrels in this country for whom defense of "faith" is a refuge in their pursuit of power, public influence, and media saturation. Let's not forget--Manhattan Theatre Club had to install metal detectors for the entire run of Corpus Christi. I remember opening day of Last Temptation at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York stunned by the security guards standing and facing us from each side of the enormous screen the entire showing.

The fundamentalists here who have made a profession of demagoguery and in making political footballs out of artists' work (also as a way to deny them funding and livelihood, remember) may not need to fireball the arts literally. But they do their share of damage, much of it out of the same playbook we're witnessing now overseas.

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