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

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