Thursday, August 30, 2007

When Being too Thoughtful can be Thoughtless: Jesus, Mary and Osama bin Ladin in Blake Prize Entry


"But I just ask people to think about it a little bit more deeply because it is a very loaded work which means that there are so many different meanings." - Blake Prize entry Artist, Priscilla Bracks.
A friend of mine used to have a saying about "deep thinkers in the shallow end of the pool". Sometimes your thoughts can become so deep that you become thoughtless.

These "works of art" in the picture above were entered by Priscilla Bracks and Luke Sullivan in the annual Blake Prize for Religious Art held in Sydney. You can read the entire story here in The Australian. Coo-ees in the Cloister has some strong words on this too.

I find the Jesus/bin Laden picture truly offensive. I am only marginally less offended by the statue of the Blessed Virgin in the veil. It is not the association of the Blessed Virgin with the Muslim religion that offends me -- after all, Muslims regard Mary with great devotion. My concerns are a little deeper than that.

Both depictions offend me because of what they do to the faces of Jesus and Mary. The picture morphs the face of our Lord into the face of the terrorist. The statue hides the face of Mary completely. With this in mind read these following statements from Pope Benedict:
To express ourselves in accordance with the paradox of the Incarnation we can certainly say that God gave himself a human face, the Face of Jesus, and consequently, from now on, if we truly want to know the Face of God, all we have to do is to contemplate the Face of Jesus! In his Face we truly see who God is and what he looks like!

In [Our Lady's] face—-more than in any other creature—-we can recognize the features of the Incarnate Word.
A truly thoughtful person would realise that these "works of art" distort and obscure the face of God which we have been privileged to see in Jesus and Mary.

I, for one, am at least glad that the Blake Prize judges were thoughtful enough not to award these "works of art" any prizes, although a little more thoughtfulness would have excluded the work from the exhibition entirely.

9 Comments:

At Thursday, August 30, 2007 12:01:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

Whether images of this kind are blasphemous or offensive depends, to a large extent, on whether you want them to be.

Yes, a parallel between Jesus Christ and Osama bin Laden is shocking but, then, we should be shocked by Jesus, shouldn’t we?

And the parallel is not purely a figment of the artist’s imagination; it has some basis in fact. Jesus was regarded by the powers that be as a dangerous political revolutionary, and was killed for that reason. Bin Laden is also regarded as a dangerous political revolutionary, and undoubtedly would be killed for that reason if the US government had its way. Perhaps an image of this kind can illuminate our understanding of the situation Jesus was in, and the way he was regarded. Perhaps it can also challenge us to reflect on how we, as Christians, are called to respond to someone like Bin Laden – who is, as this work emphasises, made in the image of God.

And, yes, the image of Mary hides her face. But, to cover something which is normally uncovered is to call attention to it. We notice women in hijabs; they stand out in a crowd.

In western societies the veil is normally seen, rightly or wrongly, as something which oppresses or marginalizes people. Can we find in this work of art a comment on how Mary can be oppressed and marginalized? Perhaps western societies marginalize Mary by dismissing her as a produce of an obsolete and pietistic Catholicism which is at best irrelevant and at worst regressive – much the same attitude, in fact, as many in western society have to Islam. Or perhaps we Christians have developed our own ways of veiling her, under the layers and layers of bunches of bluebells and simpering statues and childish queen-of-the-angels-and-queen-of-the-may doggerel that we use to avoid contemplating what it means to watch your son slowly tortured to death in front of you.

I have absolutely no idea what the intention of the artist was in producing these works. And perhaps it doesn’t matter. The works speak to us for themselves, and the only important meaning they have is the meaning we choose to find in them.

 
At Thursday, August 30, 2007 1:46:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

"Yes, a parallel between Jesus Christ and Osama bin Laden is shocking but, then, we should be shocked by Jesus, shouldn’t we?"

Oh, come on now, Peregrinus. You are bending over backwards trying to defend this one. You know that I am fairly tolerant. Sometimes too tolerant. When I first saw these, I thought to myself: I'm not really offended. But then I had a bit of a think and said to myself: Why not? You OUGHT to be offended. This sort of stuff shows blatant disrespect to the image of the Holy Face and Our Lady. I realised that in fact I was being precisely what Mr Public Opinion in the Cloister accused me of being: Meek to a fault.

Your attempts to excuse this stuff are so far-fetched as to make me wonder if anyone could do anything to these holy images which you, Peregrinus, would not be able to defend by some flick of the wrist, smoke-and-mirrors sophistry.

"The works speak to us for themselves, and the only important meaning they have is the meaning we choose to find in them."

I'm sorry, but you can't have it both ways, Peregrinus. Either the works "speak for themselves" or they are the equivalents of "ink blots" onto which we transfer our own meanings.

But this is patently false. Try spouting this idea to an Orthodox Christian who knows what an icon is. The image of the face of Jesus has a meaning in itself, not just a meaning we project onto the image. The same with the statue of Our Lady. In these "works of art" that inherent meaning has been tampered with, with the result that the "reading" they give is a false one.

Peregrinus: Wake up!

 
At Thursday, August 30, 2007 1:52:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

Actually, come to think of it, how would you feel if it were the face of Adolf Hitler, rather than Bin Laden?

 
At Thursday, August 30, 2007 2:27:00 pm , Blogger Peter said...

Responding to this sort of thing with outrage may be appropriate in terms of it's offence, but it grants the artist more attention than they deserve.

Like a child that misbehaves to get attention, it's best to ignore them till they come up with something worthy of attention.

 
At Thursday, August 30, 2007 2:57:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

When I say that “the works speak for themselves” I mean that their meaning to me does not depend on the intention of the artist – the more so since I have no idea what the intention of the artist was. I see the painting, or sculpture, or whatever it is; I react to it; I reflect upon it. I have to take responsibility for my own reactions and my own reflections.

How would I feel if the face were that of Hitler rather than bin Laden? Very confronted. Hey, I feel confronted as it is.

But it’s not an objection to a piece of art to say that it’s confronting, any more than it’s an objection to the gospel. We have to look a bit deeper than that.

I could feel confronted for two reasons:

“Someone is telling me that Jesus Christ is like Adolf Hitler/Osama bin Laden! That’s grossly offensive!”

“Someone is challenging me to find the image of God in Adolf Hitler/Osama bin Laden! I find that very difficult to do!”

And, for me, both of these reactions would be sincere. A comparison between Christ and Hitler is very offensive, especially in the context in which, and for the purposes for which, comparisons with Hitler are typically made.

And, likewise, I do find it very difficult to find the image of God in Hitler or bin Laden. My faith tells me it is there, and calls me to find it. Indeed, it calls me to love Osama bin Laden – not merely to tolerate him, but to love him, to the point where I would lay down my life for his. Of course I find that challenging; who wouldn’t? It is no less challenging when a work of art makes the same point.

The point is that both reactions are confronting, but one confronts me because it contradicts my faith, and the other confronts me because it asserts a truth of my faith that I feel challenged by. And it’s my choice which meaning I will take out of, or read into, this work. The artist cannot control this; I can. Which is why I say that this work is only blasphemous if you want it to be.

I take your point about icons. But icons only have the meaning that they have because of the conventions of iconography – conventions which have to be shared by the artist and the viewer. If this work were presented as an icon then, yes, it would be offensive – but, then, so would much of classic western religious art.

 
At Thursday, August 30, 2007 3:02:00 pm , Blogger Athanasius said...

Am I the only person who simply finds these art works unimaginative and boring? I suppose, a la Perigrinus, we could extract some lesson if we worked hard enough, but frankly it's not worth the effort. I expect a little more from religious artists. And it seems that the judges thought so too.

 
At Thursday, August 30, 2007 4:12:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

Yes, I also find these works unimaginative and rather boring. That was my first reaction. "Why bother?" I asked myself.

Because.

It is more than confronting. It says that these "artists" are willing to pervert sacred images as objects to carry their own messages (whatever that may be). To an incarnational, sacramental, iconographic Christianity, this is blasphemy.

I think too, Peregrinus, that say that "icons only have the meaning that they have because of the conventions of iconography" is to completely misunderstand iconography--and it is naively modernist. Does the Eucharist only have meaning because of the conventions of the faith? Or is there something objective about it? An image of someone is far more than just a convention--it is like someone's name. It is, for goodness sakes, someone's FACE.

Imagine if these were pictures of some current sports/film idol--there would be outrage in the papers and on talk back radio. And there would be grounds for defamation. The media furor would not be "boring".

 
At Friday, August 31, 2007 10:49:00 am , Blogger Athanasius said...

David, I see your point. Perhaps I've become blase because I've spent a bit of time with artists, and therefore discount their significance!

BTW, I agree with your point about iconography. There is something more going on in art than mere convention, something incarnational. The art and its Subject can't be so easily untangled. If it could be, then art would be boring and artist probably would go out of business.

And even if I agreed that iconography were merely a matter of convention, it wouldn't follow that anything was permissable. For example, if I yell abuse at someone it's no excuse to claim that words are arbitrary conventions. For artists to claim to be operating under their own conventions, when they know that these conventions are not held by others, is simply bad faith.

In choosing the Incarnation, the Son has placed himself in our hands. We saw on Calvary, horribly, what that meant. 'Insult and spittle' were the risks He deliberately took. A very great mystery.

 
At Friday, August 31, 2007 10:52:00 am , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

Yes, I also find these works unimaginative and rather boring . . .

Boring, but also confronting? It’s an unusual combination!

It is more than confronting. It says that these "artists" are willing to pervert sacred images as objects to carry their own messages (whatever that may be). To an incarnational, sacramental, iconographic Christianity, this is blasphemy.

Gosh, no. What makes a particular work of religious art significant, different from yet another moulded plaster reproduction of the Infant of Prague is precisely that the artist contributes something unusual or unique.

This could be simply first rate technical ability, or an arresting image of an otherwise familiar subject, or something else aesthetic rather than theological. But it could be something theological.

In my time, I must have seen hundreds of thousands of crucifixes, say. Some stylized, some naturalistic; some coloured, some uncoloured; some mass-produced, a few hand-made. Most of them made no impression whatsoever on me. In a place where you expect to see a crucifix, you don’t see the crucifix. You only notice it if it’s not there.

But a few stand out. A crucifix carved – in fact, only partly carved – from a dried, twisted root of an ash tree which said “Incarnation” in a way that no lovingly-crafted baroque sculpture ever could. An almost childishly brightly-painted crucifix of a weeping, suffering Christ. A crucifix of a faceless Christ, fixed to his cross with rusted barbed wire, which came from a camp in the Soviet gulag. (Was the Christ figure faceless as a memorial to those crucified but forgotten? Or because the artist lacked the tools, or the skill, to carve a face? Or because he never got to finish it? I don’t know.) A cross made of medieval roof-nails from the bombed-out cathedral of Coventry.

Were these images “perverted” by the messaged that they carried? Was this blasphemy?

I think too, Peregrinus, that say that "icons only have the meaning that they have because of the conventions of iconography" is to completely misunderstand iconography--and it is naively modernist. Does the Eucharist only have meaning because of the conventions of the faith?

No, but icons are not the Eucharist. (Who’s flirting with blasphemy now?!) The point about icons is that they are not individual; they are constant recapitulations of the same highly stylized image, produced using the same techniques. An icon derives part of its significance from its similarity to and connectedness with all the other icons dealing with the same subject. Thus the viewer of an icon is connected to all the icons of the subject concerned. And the icons are seen, not as the works of individual artists, but as a single work of the church. All of this puts icons in a class of their own when it comes to artistic significance. The dominant traditions of western religious art completely reject this approach.

Or is there something objective about it? An image of someone is far more than just a convention--it is like someone's name. It is, for goodness sakes, someone's FACE.

Of course, the interesting thing here is that the conventional depictions of the faces of Jesus and Mary in western art bear no relationship at all to the likely actual faces of Jesus and Mary. We depict them, basically, with the faces that we would like to have – with our skin tones, our eye and hair colours, and our conventions of what is wise, loving, noble, etc in the human face. They are entirely symbolic. Furthermore, we only recognise these faces as those of Jesus and Mary because of the context in which they are displayed – the halo, the blue or red robe, the other iconographic signals. If we’re trying to identify a holy picture or a holy statue, the face is actually the last thing we look at. These faces are not, in any sense, therefore, realistic representations of Jesus and Mary.

So what is being obscured here is not Jesus and Mary, or the faces of Jesus and Mary, but the symbolic faces that we have constructed for Jesus and Mary. In our art, we try to make Jesus and Mary like ourselves, or idealized versions of ourselves, but maybe what we are called to do is more to make ourselves like Jesus and Mary.

(What did Jesus actually look like? Well, it’s a horrible thought, but if you want to pick a contemporary person who is familiar to us, in terms of skin tone and colour, hair type, stature, etc he might have looked something like the young Yassir Arafat. And it’s true that he probably resembled Osama bin Laden, if not very closely, then certainly more closely than he resembles the conventional images that we are used to.)

Imagine if these were pictures of some current sports/film idol--there would be outrage in the papers and on talk back radio. And there would be grounds for defamation. The media furor would not be "boring".

Funnily enough, just last Friday I went to an art exhibition dealing with the theme of religion and footy, and in particular the theme of how sport is used by Australia society to fill a gap that religion ought more properly to fill. The artwork involved making use of the conventions of both religious art and sports photography, and many of the artworks featured a striking combination of religious and sporting objects and characters – for instance, a panel of 16 repeated images of the Virgin in a familiar style, except that in each image here robes are in the colours of one of the AFL teams. Or a Madonna and child, but with a football instead of the child Jesus. Or an image of Moses the lawgiver with the face of Denis Cometti.

If there was a criticism implicit in the exhibition, it was (to my mind) a criticism of Australian society, and its atrophied spiritual dimension. But you didn’t have to read the exhibition in negative terms; it also made points about incarnation and communion that most Christians would agree with. It was certainly startling and, while there were quite a number of pieces that I wouldn’t hang in my own house, you would struggle to identify an anti-religious message in it. It was offensive, I suppose, if you couldn’t stand to see religious themes handled in an unconventional manner, but that was about the limit of it.

Nevertheless, dealing with images that have such powerful evocations, the artist said that she expected that some people would find her images offensive or upsetting, and indeed they did. But, contrary to her expectations, the negative feedback she got was not from religious believers but from sports fans, who felt that she was treating with insufficient respect something that was the central passion and focus of their lives. These were people, obviously, who took sport seriously but thought religion was a joke. Believers, on the other hand, understood what she was trying to do.

 

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