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Gone, Yet Still

Tuesday 2 September 2008

 The headline is Action over ‘indecent’ Jesus art. An erection portrayed on Jesus, one of several plaster figures.

Just makes me smile. As on most ethical problems i cannot settle on one side or the other, and much of my enjoyment comes from the openness of the question. Some of it comes from watching people solid in their opinions who don’t believe the question is open; from the fact that that solidity of opinion is equally solid at both extremes. I feel safe finding amusement in this one, as it’s not abortion, all that’s at stake is ruffled feathers.

Terence Koh has been called the Naomi Campbell of the art world and is used to controversy. He was the one who gold-plated his own shit and displayed it in glass cases. For that i love him, though i wouldn’t put his art in my sitting room – primarily because it doesn’t do anything for me aesthetically.

I can’t find images of the disputed works, so i haven’t formed my own opinion on them. Theoretically a figure of Christ with a hard-on could be made with great religious reverence: remembering that Jesus was human as much as divine and that’s the whole point: he became mortal and died, which is the heart of Christianity as i understand it. Without calling it reverential, you could still take it as inoffensive – the offence depends on the offensiveness of an erection, which after all is as natural as the breastfeeding portrayed in statues of Christ when he was somewhat younger. It causes no offence to say Jesus felt compassion, or sorrow, or fear (before his death), or anger (in the Temple), all of which are natural human feelings – or cold or hunger, for that matter – so it’s interesting to consider how lust is different.

Back when i called myself Christian, i was pretty offended by people assuming my God didn’t have a sense of humour. OK, i wasn’t in those days asked to make my mind up about this kind of humour, but the point is still valid.

I haven’t read anything about the Mickey Mouse figure in the same exhibition being offensive, though that’s a character traditionally aimed at children. The life of Christ is a very adult story with plenty of politics and a gruesome execution method in it. But imagine a Teletubby with an erection.

On the principle, though, rather than the specific case: my instinct is that art is art and is beyond ethics, let alone social taboo (which is a narrower criterion than ethics); in other words art is amoral and cannot be either immoral or moral, in which i agree with Oscar Wilde. Then i doubt myself and think there must be a limit. I daresay my personal line is drawn at a more liberal point than many people’s. I do believe one of the things art should be doing – yes, should, not just is allowed to but ought to – is challenging taboos. One of the things art can explore is the concept of taboo and how else to question that than by facing the taboos? A bit like the court jester’s role.

Perhaps more people are offended by visual art because it sits there, continuing even after you have reacted to it. A stand-up comic can express some shocking ideas, some really startlingly upsetting images, but gauging the audience’s reaction can move on hastily if they don’t go down well – or choose to elaborate, but even pushing further the comic is moving on from the original ‘offence’ and it begins to fade immediately. Art, otoh, is in your face until you choose to turn your face away. And if you’re stunned to immobility you don’t turn away for a bit. Many of us retain visual memories better than aural ones, too. So it’s easier to get over the shock of a joke told than of a picture presented.

Correct me on facts if you can, as i have written most of this from memory. Contribute your own views if you can do it inoffensively!  ;0)

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