Christians Mull Offensive Art Works

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Friday, August 31, 2007

Christians Mull Offensive Art Works

( - The inclusion of two provocative entries in Australia's most prestigious religious art competition has again highlighted the issue of distasteful art and Christians' reaction to it.

Critics ranging from Prime Minister John Howard to church leaders have questioned the appropriateness of the two exhibits -- one depicting the Virgin Mary wearing an Islamic burqa, and another, a holographic image of al-Qaeda terror chief Osama bin Laden morphing into an image of Jesus Christ.

The works, submitted for a 55-year-old annual award called the Blake prize, are on display at a taxpayer-funded gallery in Sydney. Howard has called them "gratuitously offensive to the religious beliefs of many Australians."

"Regrettably, attempts to insult Jesus and Mary have become common in recent years, even predictable," said the country's most senior Catholic leader, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney.

"Too often it seems that the only quality which makes something 'art' is the adolescent desire to shock," he said. "If this is the best the Blake prize can do, it has probably outlived its usefulness."

The chairman of the Blake prize, the Rev. Rod Pattenden, said in a statement it seemed that "a real nerve" had been hit.

"I have received several angry phone calls from people claiming religious allegiance who have expressed themselves with clear hatred and violence towards other religious groups," said Pattenden, a minister in the Uniting Church, a liberal Protestant denomination.

"Art and the Blake prize, in particular, does our culture a service when it can make us aware of our prejudices, out hatreds and the intolerance that sometimes underlies some forms of belief," he added.

Luke Sullivan, the artist responsible for the Mary depiction, reacted to the row by saying, "Women often bear the responsibility to be pure, chaste and submissive to the needs of men. To simply be shocked at this work is to choose to avoid the deeper offense of the work, that is to ask questions about the place of women in religion."

Priscilla Bracks, who created the Bin Laden-Jesus picture - entitled "Bearded Orientals: Making the Empire Cross" - told Australian radio she had no intention to offend.

"Immediately people are seizing on what they see as the most controversial [interpretation], that I am comparing the two," she said.

There were other ways the picture could be read, she said, including as a juxtaposition of good and evil.

In a statement released by the Blake prize organizers, Bracks put forward another argument: "There is a very real possibility that by giving media attention to those who commit crimes and advocate violence, we elevate them to a status where in some circles, they are perceived as sacred and holy -- revered in the same way we revere Jesus. To me this work is a cautionary tale about our fixation with crime, violence and catastrophe."

The Australian, a national daily newspaper, was not convinced, saying in an editorial that "the title [of the artwork] is enough to confirm that it was primarily conceived to generate a knee-jerk reaction, which it has successfully done."

Many of the scores of people posting comments on various Australian media websites voiced outrage at the artworks. And a number of commentators argued that Christians were an easy target.

"Why is it that these so-called artists seem to only pick on Christians when they want to make their 'confronting' works of art?" asked Bill Muehlenberg, who writes on religion, society and politics.

"Well, we all know the answer to that one," he said. "Christians are not going to issue fatwas against these self-important artistes. Christians will not issue death threats to these juvenile delinquents."

Columnist Andrew Bolt suggested that Bracks was cowardly to depict a Christian rather than a Muslim figure.

"If bin Laden is the creation -- or flip side -- of any religious figure, the most obvious candidate is surely Mohammed. But showing a jihad-preaching Mohammed morphing into bin Laden .... well, that could get an artist killed," he wrote in the Herald Sun, a Melbourne tabloid.

"How easy it is to slander the guy whose followers don't shoot back."

The Anglican bishop of South Sydney, Robert Forsyth, said Christians do not react violently to images that may offend them.

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