Often, the most powerful art comes from minds that dare to question the status quo and tear down shibboleths, often at great personal and professional cost.
When conceptual artist Andres Serrano launched his “Piss Christ” exhibit almost 30 years ago, little did he know it would become a lightning rod for the religious right and ignite a high-profile debate on the boundaries of free speech and the role of art in public life. Piss Christ is a photographic reproduction of a crucifix floating in a small glass tank filled with Andres’ urine. It was one of a series of photographs that involved classical statuettes submerged in various fluids like milk and blood.
Conservative Senators Jesse Helms and Alphonse D’Amato denounced the National Endowment of Arts in harsh terms for backing the project. Senator D’Amato caused a furor by dramatically tearing a reproduction of the image to shreds, calling it a “deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity.” Serrano received numerous death threats and hate mail and was denied grants due to the controversy. On Palm Sunday 2011, Catholic fundamentalists attacked and destroyed the photograph with hammers during a showing in France.
“The thing about the crucifix itself is that we treat it almost like a fashion accessory,” Serrano told The Guardian. “When you see it, you’re not horrified by it at all, but what it represents is the crucifixion of a man. … And for Christ to have been crucified and laid on the cross for three days where he not only bled to death, he shat himself and he peed himself to death,” he added. “So if Piss Christ upsets you, maybe it’s a good thing to think about what happened on the cross.”
The exhibit that really got the Christian right foaming at the mouth was a retrospective of work by late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. One image was a self-portrait showing Mapplethorpe graphically inserting a bullwhip into his anus. Another displayed a finger inserted into a penis. Two displayed nude children. Considered one of the most influential visual artists of the late 20th century, Mapplethorpe explored a wide range of subjects throughout his career, including black and white portraits of celebrities, intricate flower arrangements, images of nude black males, the BDSM subculture of New York in the 1970s and classical nude portraits of female bodybuilders. He often participated in the acts he staged for photography and engaged his subjects sexually.
“He was not looking to make a political statement or an announcement of his evolving sexual persuasion,” writes his friend Patti Smith in her book Just Kids. “He was presenting something new, something not seen or explored as he saw and explored it. Robert sought to elevate aspects of male experience, to imbue homosexuality with mysticism. As Cocteau said of a Genet poem, ‘His obscenity is never obscene.’”
It was clear by the extreme reactions to their art provoked that Mapplethorpe and Serrano had violated some ancient cultural codes zealously guarded by the self-appointed sentinels of moral propriety.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines blasphemy as (1) great disrespect shown to god or something holy and (2) irreverence toward something considered sacred and inviolable. The last person put to death for religious blasphemy in the West was 20-year-old Scotsman Thomas Aikenhead in 1697. He was prosecuted and subsequently hanged for attempting to debunk the miracles of Christ and refusing to accept the Old Testament as the word of God. The death penalty for blasphemy still exists in many parts of the world. In 2017, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom identified 71 countries that still have some form of anti-blasphemy laws in their legal code, of which some of the worst offenders, aside from Italy, are Muslim-majority nations. These laws are often used against artists and writers who run afoul of the powers that be.
In December 2011, Jafar Panahi, an Iranian director of several internationally acclaimed films, was arrested and jailed along with his wife, daughter and friends. Although his family was later released, Panahi was sentenced to six years in jail and handed a 20-year ban on making films or giving interviews to local or foreign media. He was also barred from leaving Iran except for medical reasons or to make the Hajj pilgrimage. Most of the director’s films are banned in Iran. The film Offside, which won the Silver Bear at Berlin in 2006, is about a group of female football fans who are arrested while trying to sneak into Iran’s World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain. (Women are barred from attending men’s sporting events in Iran.)
A few decades prior to Panahi’s arrest, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa against British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie in 1988 for his supposedly blasphemous depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in his award-winning novel, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie was accused of betraying his faith and had to go into hiding for several years, during which time he was provided round-the-clock police protection. Not only was the book banned throughout the Islamic world, but also in India — a country with one of the largest Muslim populations.
Hindus are also quick to take offense at perceived slights against their faith. M.F. Husain, one of India’s most renowned contemporary artists, a creative genius with a prodigious body of work to his name, was chased out of the country for depicting Bharat Mata (Mother India) in the nude, sprawled across a map of India with the names of Indian states emblazoned on various parts of her body. Hundreds of lawsuits were filed and numerous death threats issued in connection with his “obscene” art, leaving Husain with no choice but to leave his beloved homeland. He spent the remainder of his days shuttling between Qatar and London, where he died on June 9, 2011. The thugs who vandalized Husain’s exhibits and issued death threats were clearly ignorant of the blatantly erotic imagery depicted in Hindu temples, Indian art and scriptures from early antiquity onward.
The Price of Free Thought
In neighboring Pakistan, the prominent politician Salman Taseer was shot 47 times by one of his own guards for expressing his strident opposition to the regressive anti-blasphemy law 295 (b) and (c), which the Indian subcontinent had inherited from the British in 1927, prior to its division into two independent nations. His killer was hailed as a hero by tens of thousands of Pakistanis who came out on the streets to celebrate Taseer’s death.
The milder Indian version of the same colonial-era law, 295 (a), was recently deployed by right-wing Hindus against American Indologist Wendy Doniger for outraging their religious sentiments with the publication of her book, The Hindus: An Alternative History. Apart from Doniger, a number of academics, both Indian and Western, have received death threats for offending Hindu sensibilities. Professor Paul Courtright had to call in the FBI for protection when he roused the ire of Hindutva rabble-rouser Rajiv Malhotra and received a barrage of threats from his unhinged fan base. Professor Anantanand Rambachan had a similar experience with Malhotra and needed law enforcement protection while speaking at a public venue.
Although there is no official death sentence for blasphemy in India, a number of prominent activists and writers have been killed in recent years for speaking out against caste oppression, religious bigotry and regressive social customs. Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.S. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh were all suspected of having been murdered by crazed fanatics unable to tolerate fearless voices speaking truth to power.
When Lankesh was gunned down in cold blood outside her home in early September, scores of bloodthirsty bigots celebrated her death on social media, a chilling reminder of the mainstreaming of hate under the current dispensation.
And who can forget the brutal massacre of 10 staff members at the offices of the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in 2015. They were shot dead by masked men, who also shot two policeman on the street outside, shouting “Allahu Akbar!” as they drove off in a getaway car. The magazine had been under threat of violent attacks by Islamists since 2006 when it published offensive Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad.
Can’t Read This
India became overtly prudish and conservative under its Victorian overlords in spite of having a long history of irreverence in its artistic and literary traditions. Aubrey Menen’s deliciously insolent and satirical retelling of the Ramayana, Rama Retold, was banned for offending Hindu sentiments in 1956. It was incidentally the first book to be banned in independent India. More recently, The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan and Paula Richman’s Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia, featuring Ramanujan’s controversial work, were dropped by Delhi University from its curriculum under pressure from Hindu fundamentalist groups like Shiksha Bachao Andolan and ABVP.
Ramanujam highlights colorful alternative versions of the epic including Kamban’s Iramavataram, in which the Vedic god Indra is covered with a 100 vaginas, and the Jaina version, Pampa Ramayana, where Sita turns out to be Ravana’s unwanted daughter. He was essentially suggesting that Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana could not be held as the gold standard, and that the many alternative versions of the epic were equally valid. Of course, this is unacceptable to the Hindutva brigade vigorously campaigning to reshape Hinduism into a sanitized and homogenous entity stripped of complexity and contradictions.
The matter did not end there. The publisher of the book, Oxford University Press, capitulated to right-wing pressure without putting up a fight and stopped printing the book altogether.
Of course, self-censorship by media outlets is not limited to India. The BBC recently dropped an animation film, Popetown, for fear it would offend devout Catholics. The film’s protagonist, Father Nicholas, lives in the fictional Popetown — a thinly disguised Vatican City — and works as the pope’s handler. His job is to make sure the world never comes to know his boss is a bumbling oaf.
“The traditional opponents of freedom of speech — religious fanaticism, plutocratic power and dictatorial states — are thriving, and in many respects finding the world a more comfortable place in the early 21st century than they did in the late 20th,” argues Nick Cohen in the ironically titled, You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom. Indeed, while the illusion of infinite choice may keep us distracted as consumers, seeking to unravel the machinery of this “freedom” can be dangerous.
More often than not, the most powerful art tends to come from minds that dare to question the status quo and tear down shibboleths, often at great personal and professional cost. Literary icons like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Boris Pasternak, Milan Kundera and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did their best work while living under oppressive regimes. Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of life in the Soviet gulag — the infamous work camps where dissidents, writers and members of the bourgeoisie were sent away — remains to this day the most searing indictment of the crippling effects of totalitarianism on the human spirit and intellect.
Truth-tellers, freethinkers and, yes, blasphemers are needed now more than ever. Let us celebrate and decorate them with the laurels that true heroes deserve. As the redoubtable Salman Rushdie said at a rousing speech in Delhi some years ago, “There is a line in my novel Shalimar the Clown in which one character says to another, ‘Freedom is not a tea party. Freedom is a war.’ You keep the freedoms that you fight for; you lose the freedoms that you neglect. Freedom is something that somebody’s always trying to take away from you. And if you don’t defend it, you will lose it.”
*[This article was updated on October 30, 2017.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.