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Blasphemous art

Silke Wünsch / hwSeptember 21, 2012

From Monty Python to Madonna, religious beliefs of all kinds have always been an appealing targets for artists. Blasphemy is inextricably linked to the history of art. And blasphemy sells.

A man depicting Jesus holds a cross as he walks towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Good Friday in Jerusalem's Old City April 6, 2012. Christian worshippers retraced the route Jesus took along Via Dolorosa to his crucifixion in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Image: Reuters

The Mother of God lays her child in her lap and spanks him so hard his halo falls to the ground. The painting "The Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus before three Witnesses" (1926) by German artist Max Ernst caused controversy when it was first exhibited - not because of the painting's aesthetic qualities, but because Jesus' halo was not in the right place.

A bilious green frog hangs from a cross holding a beer pitcher in its hand. This sculpture by German artist Martin Kippenberger was erected in the northern Italian town of Bolzano in 2008, shortly before the Pope was due to visit.

"Out with the dirt!" was the reaction from hundreds of incensed Christians. The museum was picketed and a politician even went on hunger strike. The Pope himself was not all too impressed by the frog.

An outcry was provoked among the Christian community in the US and England in 1979 when the Monty Python film "The Life of Brian" hit cinemas. The talk was of "an evil attack on Christianity." In Norway, the film was initially banned from being shown.

In this photo taken June 2, 2008 protesters gather outside the "Museion" museum in Bolzano, northern Italy near a banner saying "while the frog on the cross is being shown do not enter the building" referring to a sculpture portraying a green frog nailed to a cross on show inside
Demonstrators in Bolzano call for the offending frog to be removedImage: AP

Pushing the envelope

This list of provocative artworks is endless. In 1988, Martin Scorsese's film "The Last Temptation of Christ" depicted the Son of God as a broken man, who not only continually questioned his own being, but who also had sexual needs.

Church bells rang across Venice for an entire day in protest and there were angry protests elsewhere, as well. In France, a movie theater which had shown the film was set alight. In Germany, the Church attempted to ban the film with protest notes and petitions.

Recently, the director Oliver Seidl premiered the second part of "Paradise" trilogy. In "Paradise: Faith," the female protagonist masturbates using a crucifix and angrily tears a portrait of the Pope from the wall. An ultra-Catholic group has filed charges against the film on the grounds of profanity.

Dogmatism and fanaticism

Seidl aimed to highlight the religious fanaticism of a lonely woman. His method of doing so is drastic, but clear. The Monty Python troupe wanted to show how quickly people can fall into blind religious dogmatism, and how easily the need for authority can lead to uncontrollable mass movements.

A scene from the film "The Life of Brian"
"Always look on the bright side of life" was sung from crucifixes in "The Life of Brian"Image: picture-alliance

The main character is Brian. He is unwillingly elected as the Messiah. "I am not the Messiah!" Brian cries. "I say you are Lord, and I should know. I've followed a few," is the response. Crowds of believers even want to kill "non-believers" in an act of religious fanaticism. The film was one of the first to provoke an outcry among Muslims on the grounds of blasphemy.

Many artists, filmmakers and musicians aim to raise the bar with their provocations. Most don't want to question religion or faith, rather the way in which religion is instrumentalized.

Petra Bahr, the head of culture at the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) goes a step further: "Art attempts to tackle the limits of representation with taboos, painting a new picture of the world. And religion is easy to provoke in that regard, because the holy barriers that conservative believers like to enclose themselves with are the very things that challenge artists to tear them down."

Drawing the line

Exercising criticism, decrying grievances, expressing uncomfortable truths - one might think that's not an issue in Germany where freedom of expression reins and there is no censorship. Blasphemy is socially acceptable, one may assume.

Egyptian protesters burn the US flag during a demonstration outside the US embassy in Cairo, as demonstrators gathered to condemn what they said was a film being produced in the United States that insulted Prophet Mohammad
Anti-American protests in Cairo in the wake of the controversial film "Innocence of Muslims"Image: Reuters

But the recent controversy over insults to the Prophet Muhammad in the film "The Innocence of Muslims" has caused concern among Germany's growing Muslim community. But everything stays calm here. People may be outraged but the reactions remain cool-headed and reserved in comparison to the angry, often violent, protests which have taken place in many Arab countries over the past week.

Already in June, before the film acquired worldwide notoriety, the author Martin Mosebach provoked heated debate with his essay "Art and Religion - On the Value of Censorship." Mosebach argued for the introduction of censorship so that blasphemy could be punished more harshly.

The German statute already contains a relevant paragraph: Offending the religious or ideological beliefs of others publicly or through the dissemination of texts is illegal and can be punished with two to three years in prison. Too little, argued Mosebach.

Heated debate

Mosebach is very much in the minority. There are too many examples of artists fearing for their lives. In 1987, the television presenter Rudi Carell was forced into police protection after a TV-sketch in which women's underwear was thrown at the Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

Then there was the fatwa launched against Salman Rushdie for his book "The Satanic Verses." In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered. Since 2005, Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard has lived under police protection. In such a climate, Petra Bahr said, comments such as those made by Mosebach are inflammatory.

Salman Rushdie
A fatwa was launched against Salman Rushdie for his book "The Satanic Verses"Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"If you think about what that means for artists in Iran or in Africa or in Afghanistan, it becomes clear just how grotesque his appeal is," she said. "The fact that in western Europe, we have learned after many bloody conflicts to accept the opinions of others, even if it outrages or upsets us, is the essence of western culture in Europe."

Blasphemy sells

Provocative art garners attention. Petra Bahr finds it important that people who feel that their religious beliefs have been hurt are able to articulate that fact. "The can demonstrate or say: 'That's not ok,' or explain why they feel offended. Often now it's no longer the case that people have any idea why other people are so hurt."

This question is raised every time an angry mob burns down a house or kills people in the name of religion. It's unclear whether a film like "The Life of Brian" could be made today in the face of such aggressive reactions from religious fundamentalists.

Pop singer Madonna performs with a male dancers during her "Girlie Show" concert at Wembly Stadium in London
Provocative pop: Madonna has been offending for yearsImage: AP

With her stage shows that mix sexual and religious symbolism, pop singer Madonna is not worried about provoking outrage. The Vatican has long had her in its sights. The video for her song "Like a Prayer" (1989) depicting a burning crucifix, caused a scandal when the song topped the chart, selling 10 million copies worldwide.