Religious violence against art

Following the stabbing of Salman Rushdie, do we need reminding that declaring that art is blasphemous directly incites violence? Blasphemy is not a metaphor and has never meant something must be tolerated within the bounds of secular law. No, declarations of blasphemy always encourage violence.

The two sixth-century Buddhas carved into the high sandstone cliffs of Bamiyan of Afghanistan were spectacular survivors from a civilisation that at long passed. They were the tallest standing Buddhas in the world; the first was 55 m, and the second was only an awesome 37 m high.

In March 2001, the Taliban government declared that they were idols, even though they had not been any Buddhists in the area for centuries. They had a plan, a budget and nothing more important to do. When rocket launchers, tank and artillery shells failed to destroy them, they had to do it the hard way, scaling the sculptures and attaching explosives. It took 25 days of work, planting explosives to demolish the statues. Anti-tank mines were laid around the feet to increase the damage the falling stone did.

Mullah Mohammed Omar stated, “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to Allah that we have destroyed them.”

George Pell (aka Cardinal Pell Pot), Jean-Pierre Cattenoz (aka Archbishop of Vaucluse) and others encouraged the destruction of Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ by declaring it blasphemous. But Pell is not the only senior member of the Vatican to have encouraged the destruction of art by calling it blasphemous. Jorge Mario Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis) also used the word when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. 

In 2004, Bergoglio demanded a retrospective exhibition of the work of the contemporary Argentinian artist Leon Ferrari, close to end what he called a ‘blasphemous affront’. Bergoglio declared it was blasphemous because of Ferrari’s sculptures of the Virgin Mary in a blender, Jesus crucified on an American bomber, saints in frying pans and other images. Ferrari had long been critical of the Catholic church conniving with the murderous Argentina junta. 

Like Pell, Bergoglio also objected to public money being used for the exhibition in a public art gallery. Bergoglio was a tiny bit more successful than Pell. Unlike Pell, he initially got a judge to agree with him and obtained an order for the exhibition to close. However, this was overturned on appeal, and the exhibition was reopened. A mob of the faithful then destroyed several works of art at the exhibition, shouting: “Long live Christ the King!” The artist forgave Bergoglio because he got great free publicity; it is unknown if Bergoglio has forgiven Ferrari.

Forgiveness aside, the question remains should we tolerate religious organisations that call things blasphemous? My long answer is only if they tolerate the arbitrary use of violence against them. So, the short answer is no.

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

4 responses to “Religious violence against art

  • artandarchitecturemainly

    In a country without a state religion, and where individuals are free to practise anything they choose _within_ the privacy of their home, community centre and church/mosque, religious art in public runs a risk.

    I would imprison the destroyers of the two sixth-century Buddhas carved in Afghanistan … for the rest of their lives! But that would be for destroying historical heritage treasures. National treasures are irreplaceable.

  • softsenta

    The answer is of course no. We shouldn’t tolerate cries of Blasphemy. But at the same time and on a more nuanced level is it not possible that Serrano and Bergoglio wanted such a response from church people? Had they ignored such works, there would have been no conversation.

  • Mark Holsworth

    Firstly, we are not discussing a conversation; one side is creating, and the other is using or threatening violence. Secondly, Serrano, Ferrari and the Afgan Buddhists never wanted their work destroyed any more than Rushdie wanted to be attacked. Religious zealots want to protect the honour of their religion, and their actions have much in common with honour killings. Their victims only want to live, love and express their thoughts. To think it is about provoking zealots is to assume, like the zealot, that it is all about their fantasy.

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