Only a Chocolate Jesus can satisfy my soul

I’ve considered questions of blasphemy and the law previously in this blog. I was reminded of my earlier post when reading about the sculpture of “Chocolate Jesus”, which was to be displayed in a Manhattan art gallery. Members of the US Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights have successfully lobbied to have the exhibition to closed down. Ken Parish at Club Troppo has already written an interesting post on the general topic.

Let’s look at the legal side of things first. Would the Australian equivalent of the Catholic League be able to get an injunction to close down an exhibition of the Chocolate Jesus here? I think not. It is very reminiscent of the occasion on which then-Archbishop of Melbourne George Pell sought an injunction against the National Gallery of Victoria. He sought to prevent the Gallery from exhibiting Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ on the basis that the work constituted blasphemous libel. Harper J refused to grant the injunction (see Pell v The Council of Trustees of National Gallery of Victoria [1998] 2 VR 391). In light of this decision, blasphemous libel is unlikely to exist in Victoria. At page 396, of his reasons for judgment, Harper J stated:

The question whether this photograph is indecent or obscene is, given its religious context, and given that the court must have regard to contemporary standards in a multicultural, partly secular and largely tolerant, if not permissive, society, is not easy. The fact that the indecent or obscene quality of the photograph comes not from the image as such, but from its title and the viewer’s knowledge of its background, does not make the task easier.

Given this statement of the law, no group could prevent a similar display in Australia.

On a spectrum of offensiveness, I think My Sweet Lord is actually less offensive than Piss Christ. To be honest, I’m not precisely sure which aspects are offensive – there are a few possibilities. Is it the fact that Jesus is portrayed as naked? Is it the fact that Jesus has been sculpted out of chocolate? Or is it a combination of both? Was the positioning and timing of the display relevant? Apparently the work was to be displayed at street level for two hours a day during Easter Week. Although the Gallery claimed the timing was coincidental, it seems tactless and provocative to hold the display during Easter Week. I think it is arguable that it is inappropriate to put the display on view in the street, because then members of the public cannot easily choose to avoid looking at the image. By contrast, if the image were simply displayed in the gallery, there would be a choice as to whether or not to go in and look at it.

I can understand why Christians may demand that the image not be publicly displayed on the street. I’m not sure I would want my little daughter seeing a naked man made out of chocolate in a street window, and I’m not a Christian. However, I wonder whether would it be more acceptable if the image were displayed within the privacy of the gallery, with a warning to those who may be offended by it? I should say that my opinion would be different if the image in some way incited hatred for Christianity. The image does seem disrespectful, but it does not suggest Christianity is bad or that Christians are not entitled to hold their beliefs. I think this is why I think Piss Christ was intrinsically more offensive – suspending a crucifix in urine seems to imply an insult to the religion and to Jesus. I would be interested to know if there are any Christians out there who (a) are offended by the image or (b) think the image should be displayed.

Further interesting questions were raised in my mind by Catherine Deveney’s opinion in The Age today. She says:

The US Catholic League’s Keira McCaffery said: “Would this art gallery display a naked chocolate statue of Muhammad with his genitals exposed during Ramadan? I think not.” And she’s right. They probably would be too scared by what happened to Salman Rushdie. But there is an unwritten and moral logic that allows Jews to make fun of Jews, Christians to make fun of Christians and Muslims to make fun of Muslims.

So many questions raised by this one little passage:

  • What if Cavallaro is not a Catholic or a Christian? Does this render the sculpture unacceptable? (Okay, okay, he’s got an Italian name, but he might be an Italian Jew, an Italian atheist or an Italian Scientologist for all I know.)
  • Can a secular artist or an atheist artist use a religious image to comment on the way in which a religion operates within our society?
  • Are we forbidden to comment on or satirize other religions if we disagree with them? When does comment cross the border into religious hatred and discrimination? Inciting religious hatred is a bad thing, but it’s a hard line to draw sometimes.
  • Deveney refers to the fatwa against Rushdie as being instrumental in preventing artists from producing mocking images of Muhammad. What exactly is she saying here? Is Deveney saying that Catholics should start issuing fatwas if they want to stop offensive images being made public? Does she condone the fatwa against Rushdie? If she regards the fatwa against Rushdie as being “private Muslim business” between Muslims, why is it okay for Catholics to mock Catholics, but not okay for Muslims to mock Muslims?

There are no easy answers to some of these questions. It is hard living in a pluralistic society. I’ve previously written two posts on Victoria’s anti-vilification laws, in which I struggle with these ideas. Ultimately, I believe that as a modern secular democratic state, Australians should be able to comment freely on the way in which various religions and groups operate. I should admit that I am not religious, so perhaps I do not quite understand the pain that such images can evoke.

To me, these “controversial” artworks never seem to exhibit particular merit. Nor do they provoke useful or insightful observations about a particular religion. This being said, perhaps I’m just an old fuddy-duddy, and not up with the modern art “vibe”. I’m not much of a fan of sharks pickled in formaldahyde and the like. It just seems to me that such works are not particularly skillful – they are reliant on shock-value and novelty alone. I don’t mind shock-value if there is accompanying skill and vision. A chocolate Jesus just seems plain silly to me, and a waste of good chocolate. I wonder, however, whether the Catholic League has shot itself in the foot by provoking the furore? They could have politely asked the Gallery to put the image indoors and post a warning on the door for anyone who might be offended. But now they have given Cavallaro the best publicity he could have ever hoped for. There is no way I would have known of his work otherwise.

(Image of My Sweet Lord taken from Cosimo Cavallaro’s website)

P.S. Apologies to Tom Waits for stealing a line from his song, Chocolate Jesus.



Filed under blasphemy, christianity, freedom of speech, law

6 responses to “Only a Chocolate Jesus can satisfy my soul

  1. OTT

    oh. I had such a good comment and then I lost it. Here we go again 🙂
    You say: It is hard living in a pluralistic society.

    And I say: But fun, no?

    Sorry, nothing insightful from me (even if I thought it worthwhile to write twice).

    There is some artistic value to shock-value not very skillful artwork: it questions the conception of art – what is it, what is its place in our society etc.

    I am curious as to what would happen if My Sweet Lord turned into performance art and people ate the chocolate? A. It would no longer be so wasteful 🙂 And B. Is it a comment on religious education? C. Is this permissible – or too offensive (obviously chocolate Jesus is already offensive, so any further step is a no-no).

    Why is a sculpture of Jesus out of chocolate, at Easter time more offensive than at any other time? Can this not be a reminder of what Easter has become (I’m not religious but or therefore I celebrate chocolate eating with fervour at Easter time).

    I don’t know. Sorry to ask more questions! Thanks for making it interesting to think about.

  2. Legal Eagle

    OTT, you are right, it is fun living in a pluralistic society – I’d far rather that than everyone the same!

    My husband made the same point as you – that it could be a comment on the commercialisation of Easter and chocolate Easter Eggs.

    The artist apparently was going to let people eat the sculpture – I see no reason why this should be any more offensive than communion. I am not a Christian, so I was most surprised as a teenager to find out that the bread and the wine either represented Jesus’ flesh and blood or in fact, turned into Jesus’ flesh and blood (transubstantiation).

    I am a chocoholic, so I would happily eat a chocolate sculpture of anything – nothing is sacred where eating chocolate is concerned… 😉

  3. Anonymous

    Censoring of the choc Jesus has a recent parallel in Australia.

    “In 2003 ABC’s Lateline reported an attempt by “key lobbyists in the Jewish community” to censor an exhibition depicting Palestinian
    life held at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. When Treasures of Palestine
    was displayed in Canberra it featured “dozens of political photographs, posters and a documentary on the intifada” but by the time it reached Sydney only 5 photographs were deemed eligible for display. All images featuring Israeli soldiers had been removed.”

    Apparently, Australians too must be protected from politico/religious images which might lead them to question that which some groups wish they would not.

  4. Aimee

    Okay I am a christian and I find it a pretty tasteless bit of art. On the other hand I was recently at a christian book shop and discovered they were trying to re-take easter from the Easter Bunny by selling Chocolate Lambs (Jesus being identified with the Passover Lamb, which of course is celebrated and remembered in Communion with the bread and the wine) and I frankly found that pretty tasteless too.

    I appreciate the sentiment of trying to re-take the most holy christian holiday from the market and caring about the fact that it has been co-opted into mass-produced and merchandised children’s fantasies of endless consumerism (ditto christmas), but i’m not sure buying into the fact that chocolate is the bottom line of the day is really the best way to do it. Don’t get me wrong, I love fantastic stories for children but don’t see why my holy days should be stripped of their meaning and passion and turned into bland tales of dubious morality, sanctioned self-indulgence and sugarplums. Easter is a story of blood, sacrifice, long-awaited promises filled and redemption; not chocolate – although this is the way it is treated.

  5. Legal Eagle

    I totally understand why you would feel that way, Aimee. It does seem to me that the real meaning of these festivals are obscured and disrespected by the feeding frenzy of consumerism that goes on. Every year, the Christmas decorations are put up another week earlier. The Easter eggs appear on the supermarket shelf in February. Is this what it should be about? I don’t think so.

  6. Legal Eagle

    Anonymous, in art displays which involve portrayals of current ethnic and religious conflict, there is always going to be a difficult line to tread. When is something an artwork or a piece of history…and when does it cross the line into inciting religious and/or racial hatred? Any display which involves the latter should be carefully considered.

    I’ve had a look at the Lateline transcript, but there is no indication as to what the removed images were.

    On the one hand it seems that some of the posters might have crossed over the line and constituted vilification, given the comments of Stephen Kerkyasharian, Chairman of the Community Relations Commission. Kerkyasharian said, “in some cases I said that they might want to think about this poster again, but that’s my personal opinion.”

    But on the other hand, if the posters represented the reality of what is on display in Palestine, perhaps they should be shown? I once saw some terrible pamphlets issued by one of the radical Palestinian groups. (Not just anti-Israeli, for the record – full-on anti-Jewish, using all the old Nazi myths). They didn’t make me feel any sympathy for the aims of that group at all, and indeed, ever since, I have had very little time for that group.

    Removing images of Israeli soldiers seems to be going a bit far. The reality is that the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights are “occupied territory”, and that of course Israeli soldiers will be present in any full depiction of the area. The obvious rhetorical question which arises is: how would Jewish groups feel if the Germans put pressure on Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum) to remove negative portrayals of Germans? They would argue (correctly) that the true history would not be portrayed.

    Perhaps the answer is not to remove images, but to add more images to make a fuller picture. As I have argued before in relation to Middle Eastern politics, there are people on either side (Palestinian and Israeli) who have acted badly, and a full portrayal would show both sides:
    1. The aftermath of a Israeli rocket launcher attack on a Hamas militant, which also killed surrounding men, women and children
    2. The aftermath of a Palestinian suicide bomber attack on a Jewish wedding or cafe.

    Hopefully, a constructive display would also show examples of Israelis and Palestinians who respect one another and just want to live in peace.

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