Hey, Haifa! 1999 called and it wants it’s controversy back!

At a museum in Haifa, Israel, a sculpture called McJesus has been removed from display.

The name of piece by Jani Leinonen tells you exactly what it looks like and also gives heavy clues as to why it is controversial: it is the crucifixion of Ronald McDonald.

There have been angry protests against the sculpture by Israeli Christians who consider it offensive and blasphemous. There were threats of fire bombing.

The sculpture brings to mind another crucifixion mash-up, Immersion (Piss Christ) by Andreas Serrano (1987). I also think of The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili (1996), a picture painted using elephant dung and which features pornographic imagery. Rudi Giuliani, then mayor of New York, called it ‘sick’ when the painting was exhibited there in 1999.

The arguments for artistic freedom of expression made back then apply equally to this furore. Hey, Haifa! 1999 called and it wants it’s controversy back! Blasphemy laws still blight the lives of many people (ask Asia Bibi) and blasphemous images are still used to justify political violence (ask the staff at Charlie Hebdo). But my view is that the argument against censorship on the ground of blasphemous offence is settled.

Settled, at least, in my own mind and for the sort of person who reads this blog. I don’t spend time during the day worrying or writing about whether those who advocate for blasphemy laws might actually have a point, as I do about ‘hate speech’ laws for example. I think it is undeniable that blasphemy is not at the cutting edge of free speech philosophy. Even those who have a clear agenda to reinstate blasphemy laws put their arguments in terms of ‘hate speech’ and discrimination, as the recent (bizarre) case of E.S. v Austria at the European Court of Human Rights unfortunately demonstrates.

So I was poised to avoid making a case for free speech that I consider self-evident. But in case anyone calls me lazy, or complacent, or charges that my writing is centred around a privilege liberal consensus, I may as well rehearse—quickly—the central arguments against blasphemous artworks, and why those arguments do not hold water. Then I will note a couple of other interesting aspects of this story.

Against blasphemy

  • “Religion must be respected.” This bold and broad assertion is summarily dismissed by the scoffing Nu-Atheists, but it is a powerful and important argument. Religion does hold communities together, and they do provide a useful moral framework. But that is not an argument for uncritical adherence to doctrine or for punishment of those who do not pay the proper fealty to icons of the religion. Crucially, religion and religious symbols can be used by those in power to entrench their position, or even to abuse others. Sometimes, there is very real value to an act of expression which subverts those symbols.
  • “God is displeased.” Now this one I do scoff at. It is a theological claim based on revelation. It cannot be tested, proved or disproved. It is therefore fine if and only if an individual wants to use this idea to govern their own life and choices. But it cannot be used as a reason to censor someone else, or impose choices upon them. Doing so just hands veto power to the person who can best describe the contents of a dream.
  • “Blasphemy is hate speech.” There is a distinction between attacking an idea, and attacking those who believe in it. There is a difference between rudeness to a prophet or messiah, and their followers. In any case, it is very often the case that the blasphemer is themselves a member of the religion, and hate speech is an odd charge to level at them. We might also point out that religions evolve, and the theological shifts that the major religions have made over the years is well documented (there are plenty of Islamic depictions of Mohammed, for example). What was once acceptable may now be heretical, and vice-versa. How can that be hate speech?
  • “Controversy for controversy’s sake has no artistic value.” I agree with this, but that is an argument for better curatorial decisions, not censorship once the Free Speech Moment has occurred.

I have more to say

First, a quick aside. I think the artwork itself seems as dated as the anger that surrounds it. In the last year of the 2010s, the bogey-men have surely changed. It is 21 years since Naomi Klein’s No Logo and 18 years since Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. Is Ronald McDonald still the most appropriate personification of the pernicious influence of global multinationals? Writing for Al Jazeera, Jamil Khader of Bethlehem Univeristy says:

… the artist offered little more than an uninspiring rehash of the centuries-old critique of the relationship between religion and capitalism.

Surely a Zuckerberg Christ would be more relevant?

Second, we should note that this is an example of Christian anger and intolerance. We are used to Islamic outrage at Mohammed cartoons, but this is a useful case study for the argument that all religions can be intolerant and opposed to free speech.

Finally, there is a desperate irony embedded in this controversy, which is that the artist himself had asked that the piece pulled from the exhibition, because he wished to participate in a cultural boycott of Israel! So one could say that showing the piece at all was a violation of the artist’s freedom of expression.

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