Tag Archives: religion

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.


Is Art a Religion?

Art is, to some, a kind of secular humanist religion that fills the cultural gap in the lives of contemporary people. I know that this has been said many times before but it is worth repeating not because it is true but because it should be considered.

If art is a religion with an abstract divinity (art) it has lots of minor deities, or saints (major artists). There are places of pilgrimage and holy relics – art galleries and significant works of art. The history of art bears many similarities to religious history forms like hagiography or jeremiads. As a religion it is observed with Sunday arts programming on ABC TV. It is a religion that believes that art is good for your soul and for your moral outlook and that the world will be improved by art.

In part this attitude has been inherited from the Ancient Greeks who believed that beauty was the point of contact between mortals and the gods. Without this same appreciation of beauty there was nothing but an immense power imbalance.

David R. Marshall is critical of the idea of art as a religion in his “Review: Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists” on the Melbourne Art Network. Specifically Marshall is critical of de Botton for suggesting that art galleries go further in turning art into a secular religion especially for his desire to replace art history with what Marshall calls “pop psychology”. To Marshall de Botton is a high philistine who wants to use the art as “merely illustrations of the moral or social issues that concern him.”

Other problems occur when thinking of art as a religion, strange irrational ideas about artists and art. Concerns are often raised about the Simony in art; Simony is the issue of buying or selling of something spiritual. This religious concern is at the root of many discussions about non-commercial art.

If art is a religion it is a very strange religion. It is not an exclusive religion, you don’t have to renounce your other faiths you can still have doubts. You don’t need to be initiated into this cult, there are no requirements, you can even scoff and critique, anyone is welcome. This doesn’t sound like a religion at all if the iconoclasts, blasphemers and scoffers are part of the congregation.

Art is not a religion however much de Botton and others might wish it. They will remain disappointed because art history has not worked that way. Art was divorced from religion about two centuries ago. Art, as we know it today, was invented a secular response to the removal of religious propaganda values from paintings and sculpture.

I have been interested in the arts all my life. Am I not the ideal candidate for this religion of art – the child of middle class secular materials parents? But I don’t believe in the religion of art. I doubt that art will make me a better person or the world a better place. Maybe contemporary art is not a religion but a type of walking and seated meditation; exercises for the mind and body.


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