Policing the Sacred

Dennis Oppenheim: "Device to Root Out Evil" 1997. 20’ H x 10' W x 12' D. Galvanized steel, perforated metal, Venetian glass. Collection: The Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado Photo: E. Smith.

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One always wants to attend at least two panels that happen to coincide – it’s the unfortunate Law of Conferences. Come Wednesday I wanted to attend several sessions all happening at 12:30pm: “Modern Arab Art and Its Historical and Methodological Relationships to the Post-Colonial Context” exerted a certain kind of pull, but also Creative Capital’s “Risky Business”  – do not ask if I entertained fantasies of cute non-profit arts professional nerds stripping down and dancing in their Tighty Whities (no, I did not).

The session that won out was the National Coalition Against Censorship‘s
“Policing the Sacred: Art, Censorship, and the Politics of Faith” – it did not disappoint. Chaired by critic and writer Eleanor Heartney, its unwavering tone was set by NCAC’s own Svetlana Mintcheva and artists Richard Kamler, Boryana Rossa, Shirin Neshat, and Shoja Azari. I correctly assumed that its context would necessarily have to be framed by the recent round of protests and discussions over The National Portrait Gallery’s removal in late November 2010 of David Wojnarowicz‘s 1987 unfinished video “Fire in My Belly,” an edited portion of which was included and rather innocuously installed in the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” While this session was obviously organized long beforehand, the recent firestorm over NPG’s decision to remove the video, still fresh in our minds, would lend it a particular immediacy.

Left to right: Shoja Azari; Shirin Neshat; Richard Kamler; Boryana Rossa; Eleanor Heartney.

I arrived early and instinctively sat near the back – knee-jerk practice after years of attending boring panels and the need for easy and discrete egress – but there was no need. The conversation moved easily into the complexity and seriousness of the subject at hand. By the time I remembered to survey the room it was crammed – standing room only.

“Policing the Sacred” broached the most interesting age-old conundrum of art, religion and censorship. It asked that we examine the lines between hate speech, critique, parody, and appropriation of the sacred and its symbols by artists as well as by governments. Several factors were noted as being particularly relevant now:

- An upsurge of religious values since the fall of Communist regimes;
- Muslims under fire since 9/11;
- The Internet and increased mobility/accessibility of artists and images, across cultures and contexts.

The panel looked at some recent instances of artworks that have been censored in the name of religion, across a range of contexts and cultures, from democracies in the West where free speech rubs up against the manipulations of the religious right, to totalitarian theocracies that appropriate religious iconography as part of broader manipulative strategies of oppression. The range of viewpoints presented was broad, by dint of the array of experiences of the artists present, which ranged from fending off and negotiating small town USA reactionaries, to fleeing the deadly persecution of dictatorships in Iran and Russia.

In her introduction, Eleanor Heartney opened by referencing the Wojnarowicz incident, and then gave us a list of recent instances of censorship and/or desecration that reflect the increased sectarianism of our post-9/11 era:

- France’s prohibition against women wearing the hijab;
- The Swiss ban on minarets;
- Up-tick in the desecration of Jewish grave sites;
- Problems installing Nativities in public spaces in the US;
- Intolerance for satires of Christianity;
- The Danish cartoon flap;

The list goes on.

One recurring theme throughout history, and one that finds particular traction now according to Svetlana Mintcheva, is the rampant desire (of regimes, political manipulators, religios, etc.) to find images that “offend”, even when (usually) the offense is taken through wild misinterpretation.

For me, perhaps the most interesting set of exchanges occurred toward the end of the session as the artists aired their different personal feelings about “boundaries” (paraphrasing):

Shirin Neshat, after her pointed explication of her work as a  challenge to the Iranian regime, asserted that she personally likes boundaries, and that she doesn’t think globalism as such promotes behaviors that respect them. Her example was the veil in muslim countries, and how we in the West tend to equate it rather simplistically with servitude and oppression of women. She notes: the West wants to imagine that this is one world with one set of values.

Shojah Azari erupted with (in reference to the outcry over the perceived desecration of books in Richard Kamler’s art): “I would like to burn all the books” (laughter). “I was raised an atheist, at war with religious orthodoxy…” He went on to describe the repeated incapacity of Westerners to accept the fact that he is both Iranian and atheist (post-9/11, assumptions run rampant).

Richard Kamler: “I’m not that into boundaries”. He notes: they change as we grow, and contexts shift. One needs to look at religious boundaries with respect in order to change them. For this task, our notion of boundaries must be fluid.

Boryana Rossa: Agrees with Shirin’s take on boundaries – they are important.

Svetlana Mintcheva: Policing the boundaries – we all have them. Interesting that most of the artists censored by the Catholic church are CATHOLICS  (laughter). There’s something about Catholicism that makes Catholics want to go against it…. Hate speech laws are dangerous, because they could conceivably be used to silence people and to suppress dissent. Once you have such legislation, how do you control who controls it? Such a law – you would want it to serve certain purposes; but you have to imagine how it would be wielded in the hands of oppressors.

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