Religion and art, outrage or opportunity

by Anisa Mehdi
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Maplewood, New Jersey - In 1989, a photograph called “Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano, which depicted a crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine, was on show at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The exhibition received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The NEA has yet to recover from the squeeze on its funding that resulted from the public outcry that followed.

It was a big story for arts reporters, with its impact rippling beyond the NEA budget line to a whole-scale reframing of American values through “conservative Christian” and First Amendment (freedom of speech) lenses. Like Chris Ofili’s painting, “The Holy Virgin Mary”, that followed in 1996 (in which Mary is dotted with elephant dung), these objects of art pushed reporters and audiences alike to consider the boundary of art and offence, and to cross-examine closely held concepts of religion. The process is cleansing and healthy.

In an open letter to the NEA, Serrano – a Roman Catholic – writes, “The photograph, and the title itself, are ambiguously provocative but certainly not blasphemous…. This context is parallel to Catholicism's obsession with ‘the body and blood of Christ.’ It is precisely in the exploration and juxtaposition of the symbols from which Christianity draws it strength.”

This kind of inquiry exercises intellectual muscles of reason and faith. Although it may be considered a “modern” phenomenon, such critiquing is common to cultures across the ages, including those of Muslims. Except for today, it seems.

The first thing I did when the so-called “cartoon controversy” of 2006 erupted was turn to the experts – as any good reporter should. Amid the flurry of accusations, impropriety, bad taste and worse behaviour, a basic question lay fallow: is representational art forbidden by Islam? And if so, why?

I interviewed scholars of Islam and imams (mosque leaders). Their answers led to the kind of gold that arts and culture correspondents quarry – a scoop on the breaking news that, sadly, gets trampled under the foot of more explosive and angry events. Although people were killed in anti-cartoon riots and Muslims again reaped the scorn of many who saw them as small-minded, extreme and barbarous, the truth is that there is no Qur’anic prohibition against representational art.

My immediate response was published in New Jersey’s largest newspaper, the Star-Ledger, on 29 September 2006. The headline read, “Those who have faith know art cannot threaten it.”

How important is it to report that tradition, not law, prescribes avoiding depiction of the Prophet Muhammad? Significantly, “tradition” is not omni-cultural. Indeed, exquisite images of the Prophet – many of them medieval illustrations from Persia and Uzbekistan – are housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris and at the University of Edinburgh.

I contend that mass uprisings would not follow in the wake of reporting that emphasised bad taste and bad manners rather than a breach of rules. To my great dismay, there are no such uprisings against Muslim-on-Muslim brutality in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Chechnya and elsewhere. And there are exact proscriptions against such behaviour in the Qur’an and in the example of the Prophet.

The cartoons were in extremely bad taste; there is no argument there. But the brutality that erupted in the wake of their publishing was worse. Both stories, however, fall into the realm of “culture”.

As arts and culture reporters, we must get ahead of public opinion, telling multi-layered stories with as little acrimony as possible while offering context. The toughest part of the job is not to opine but to listen to views with which we may disagree or against which we may rail; to accept that what’s acceptable in some cultures is not in others; and to report with integrity.

In my National Geographic documentary Inside Mecca, for example, we showed poverty in the Holy City. As a Muslim, I was and am ashamed that this unholy condition persists in Mecca, but I still reported the story. It was just the facts, not a judgment. And my audience still receives it that way.

When tribal customs such as female genital mutilation or the wearing of the drape called burka are reported as “Islamic”, however, this is an error and there is no excuse for it. Reporters are responsible for knowing more about their subjects than the general public and what they fail to fact-check on can brew bad blood.

Arts and culture reporting can be seen as soft. Properly performed, such reporting is a powerful describer of the human condition, past and present, and can guide us to better choices for our future. Indeed, arts and culture are archaeological measures of civilisation, as are weapons of war and the waste societies leave behind. Newspapers and television news reports would do well to promote the importance of this medium in order to quicken the pace of mutual understanding in our ever-shrinking global village.

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* Anisa Mehdi is an Emmy Award-winning arts and culture reporter/producer. This article is part of a series on freedom of expression written for the Common Ground News Service.

Source: Common Ground News Service, 5 February 2008, commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
 
 
 
 
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Other articles in this series

Art, the universal language of religion by Naif Al-Mutawa
Islam and individual freedom by Sheikh Ibrahim Ramadan
Where freedom is relative by Diana Ferrero
Controversy can lead to change by Marie Korpe
A veiled Muslim view of art by Bashir Goth