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  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.