Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Blasphemy: Art That Offends

I have occasionally heard people state that the older one gets the more each person tends to be like him or herself. In other words, our natural tendencies and inclinations seem to be enhanced with age. Some people, for instance, become more laid back, while others complain about the slightest inconvenience. I have found that it takes much more to offend my sensibilities than it ever used to. I may find comments or images distasteful, but they rarely agitate me to the point of being personally offended.

I imagine most of my ambivalence comes from having viewed so much artwork that was produced to make comment on one thing or another, typically through provocation directed at one specific subset or group. A major component of artwork over the past century or so has been to cause offense through explicit, suggestive, disgusting, blasphemous, or otherwise shocking imagery. So much so, in fact, that little surprises me anymore. A brief examination of offensive imagery is considered in S. Brent Plate’s book Blasphemy: Art that Offends.

The book cover, itself, sets out to let the reader know that the fodder of the American culture wars is going to be a major theme. Mauricio Cattelan’s La Nona Ora—a fully three dimensional, life-sized image of Pope John Paul II being struck down by an errant meteorite while leading a liturgical procession—portrays a recognizable figure and automatically raises questions. While this is not a work generally known to the American public, it produces the desired effect. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ—also discussed in the book—would seem a more logical choice for cover art. However, while many people have heard about that work, far fewer know what it looks like. And the actual artwork is quite aesthetically pleasing, so it would not draw the same attention on a bookshelf as the Cattelan image.

While the two works mentioned tend to offend the sensibilities of some within the Christian faith, that is only one segment of society that the author considers. Jewish and Muslim traditions of blasphemy are equally analyzed. And though these three religious traditions tend to consume the greatest portion of the text, the author actually extends the conversation into some additional areas that round off the discussion in a helpful way. Blasphemy, we find, is not as clear cut as one might initially imagine.

Brent Plate begins the analysis by stating that the term Blasphemy has been around for a few thousand years and that it has been leveled against various, images, texts, and activities. The three Abrahamic faiths have also used the term in many different ways that have evolved over time. Therefore, it is too slippery a term in the first place and he prefers to narrow it to the context of the sacred and profane. Of course, those terms have also evolved in a way that causes us to designate only a limited amount of things as profane. Essentially, though, these are anything in life not immediately termed as “holy.” And that is nearly everything.

Additionally, Plate considers that blasphemy has traditionally been used to describe offensive speech or writing, though we now sometimes hear it in connection to images, too. The author’s analysis of  this term within the judicial realm gives insight into our current usage or misusage of the term. This connection to court systems also alludes to Plate’s later examination of the strange bedfellows of religious and political systems within this discussion.

The final chapter considers how patriotic tendencies are often aligned with religious ones. The use of flags, for instance, can cause an equal uproar as the use of religious imagery—often by the same factions. Particularly in American society, discussions of freedom of expression and speech blur in and out of the confines of church and state. So, for some, an offense against the flag is both an offense against the nation and God.

Blasphemy: Art that Offends does not give definitive answers on any front. It does, however, propose some pertinent questions to the reader. It should be noted that while Plate (and myself) do not find the images within this book particularly blasphemous, those who are easily offended by images that touch on aspects of religion, sexuality, and patriotism will likely take some offense. The text of the book, however, provides some vital discussion that assists any open reader in finding out just why he or she is offended by the imagery. That is the great achievement of this book.

Blasphemy: Art That Offends, S. Brent Plate, Black Dog Publishing, 2006

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Pipe Down!

Each individual artist works at his or her unique pace. I have some artist friends who are so prolific that I still cannot comprehend how they complete so much work. Other artists may only complete a dozen or so works in a year. That can sometimes mimic the quantity of my own output, though that has more to do with teaching nine months or more during each year. And some artists who work full-time on their art are simply just methodical and thoughtful craftsmen, so their output can be nothing other than minimal.

Because I work in a variety of media, some pieces naturally take longer than others. I have stated previously that the altarpiece constructions tend to be multi-year projects. There are several reasons for that. The actual construction of the boxes takes some time, followed by many additional steps in the finishing process of the exteriors. The painting portions take some time, too. Additionally, there are years of “fermentation” time during which I think about the form, imagery, and objects that will compose these works. The complexity of the work dictates this kind of extended timetable.

A few years ago I first mentioned that I had rescued two keyboards from an old, discarded organ. I had not yet decided how I was going to utilize them. In the intervening years I have worked on various sketches and changed my mind numerous times. Early on I had decided that this piece was going to look somewhat like a pipe organ. Just how I was going to achieve that look was uncertain.

I regularly spend many hours wandering the aisles of home improvement stores, considering how I might use materials in ways that are typically dissimilar from their intended purposes. While doing this, I worked through a few different concepts for the pipes for the “organ” project. For part of the time I considered using metal pipes. There were various types of metal pipes that I considered, but they all seemed too heavy. Then I thought about using PVC pipe, applying gold leafing so it would appear to be metal. That solved the weight problem but the time investment seemed a bit burdensome.

Eventually, I returned to the core of my original concept. I wanted this to look like a pipe organ, but finding actual organ pipes was going to be difficult. Then I thought of one of my favorite places to find inspiration—eBay. There were often pipes available there but most were full sets from old organs and they cost many thousands of dollars. They were also far larger than what I intended to use. It took a few months, but I finally did find some small sets of pipes that were perfect for my design.

One change, that I had not previously been considering, was the use of wooden pipes. I found some small wooden pipes and then some other, larger ones. The small ones were just the size I had been searching for. The larger ones, I decided, could be used more structurally within the piece; more as a decorative embellishment. However, I still wanted to use some metal pipes. Those were elusive. But I did manage to track down a set that fits perfectly with the smaller wooden pipes.

Sometimes I am willing to make slightly larger purchases for materials, for the sake of the artwork. This piece needed the authenticity of the actual organ pipes. They are, however, only one portion of this much larger project. I expect this construction will be far larger than any previous  altarpiece works I have completed or designed. The pipes and keyboards are just a couple portions of a much greater scheme. I look forward to sharing more of the process as I begin constructing the work later this year.