Aust cases 1
Aust cases 2
This page considers blasphemy, sacrilege and cultural institutions.
Coleman & Maria Fernandes-Dias in 'Lines in the Sand'
(Negotiating The Sacred II, 2008) reached the stunning
conclusion that "Legal permissibility and moral acceptability
are different" before announcing that -
art continues to provide the transgressive space for
subverting dominant ideological discourses. However, despite
their emancipatory power, artists and their art occupy a
liminal space wherein the contemporary socio-political climate
of hegemonically-induced extremism and increased communal
and religious sensitivity and intolerance, limit individual
freedom of expression. Artistic articulation of individual
conviction without the intention to offend can still potentially
cause unrest. In a world that is becoming increasingly pluralistic
and multicultural, it is necessary to step beyond the simplistic
assertion that free speech should override religious sensitivities
and to facilitate a discourse that will encourage a negotiation
of definitions of blasphemy or sacrilege and a sensitisation
of religious sensibilities, and limit the abusive deployment
of freedom of expression. Artistic sophistication and layering
of meaning with its 'virtues' of ambiguity, openness, and
indeterminacy that prevent a single, blatant and overt interpretation
of a creation as sacrilegious or blasphemous, presents one
such means of reconciling potential conflict. Enabling and
creating an environment of tolerance that is conducive to
intellectual debate and not offence, is yet another. Respect
for the religious and cultural sentiments of others is of
the utmost importance, for, it is only in a society that
respects difference that a forum for negotiation can evolve
and the lines in the sand can fade.
sceptic might of course respond that lines in the sand, unlike
many of those on paper, generally do not fade (although they
can be washed away by blood).
Not everyone sees blasphemy as a focus for an academic seminar
about "emancipatory power", the "liminal space"
or the "contemporary socio-political climate of hegemonically-induced
extremism". It is unsurprising that enthusiasts of different
persuasions have sought to gain media attention (for their
causes or merely for themselves), reinforce the identity of
communities and claim legitimacy through disagreements about
the activity of cultural institutions, ie art galleries, museums,
archives and libraries.
Some individuals and advocacy groups have claimed to 'take
a stand', promote free speech, raise consciousness or free
the unenlightened through exemplary displays of 'controversial'
contemporary art or other works. That ethos has been embraced
by some institutions, typically those that are small, self-consciously
avant garde and not primarily dependent on funding by the
state or large corporations (given the tendency of major funders
to withdraw support if protests are sufficiently noisy).
Other groups have sought to deter planned exhibitions through
lobbying, threats of disruption or even litigation (such as
that in the Piss Christ case in Australia) to force the removal
of allegedly offensive items from public display or from access
by students and other readers.
On occasion that agitation has gone further, with demands
that institutions purge their collections - displayed or merely
secreted in the stacks - of offensive material, with failure
to do so being characterised as ethno-religious discrimination,
tacit institutional endorsement of hatespeech or an expression
of the 'whiteness of law'.
Some of the disagreement reflects differing perceptions of
art and/or of the role of institutions. Curators and many
visitors to art galleries, for example, may value particular
sculptures, prints, paintings, video works, former reliquaries
and other items for aesthetic qualities that are largely divorced
from spiritual values. Some may view those works as historical
artifacts, postcards from a vanished culture with which the
viewer has no strong connection. That characterisation might
offend people who are comfortable seeing the material culture
of other faiths displayed as art or ethnographic objects but
consider that the material culture associated with their belief
system should not be exhibited in a secular environment, ie
should be seen in a temple or church but not in a display
case in a museum.
Others may recognise that the works might give offence but
consider that tolerance of offence is a key attribute of a
culturally pluralist society, with content thus not being
quarantined on the basis that someone might dislike the way
in which a religious figure is depicted or the mere notion
of the disagreement also reflects perceptions that cultural
institutions are 'soft targets', more readily disrupted than
for example broadcasting networks, courts, welfare systems
or other entities that express and reinforce the hegemony
supposedly antithetical to particular belief systems (eg commercial
television in Australia that ignores concerns in some Muslim
communities regarding female clothing).
There are no definitive international or Australian protocols
on the handling by institutions of content that is claimed
to be blasphemous or sacrilegious. Some nations have developed
broad guidelines on the treatment of 'sensitive' works in
particular categories (eg Australian Indigenous content).
Many responses appear to be ad hoc and opportunistic.
Institutional responses have varied considerably.
Some institutions have asserted their independence and legitimacy,
on occasion blustering and backing down (with withdrawal of
an item from display or cancellation of an exhibition) after
meeting vociferous - albeit largely unrepresentative - criticism.
Others have taken a 'critics be damned' stance, sometimes
using a media campaign or new/existing links with particular
communities to address criticism.
have quarantined the allegedly offensive content, with books
for example being withdrawn from open library shelves and
art works being housed in special areas demarcated with the
equivalent of an 'adult content' or health warning. Some institutions
have sequestered 'problematical' items, including Australian
Indigenous works, in areas that are ostensibly only accessible
to their staff or to a handful of scholars who agree to observe
particular protocols on publication and who meet particular
requirements (eg are not female).
Some institutions, as noted in the discussion of book censorship
elsewhere on this site, have responded to criticism by sending
items from the shelves to the shredder or landfill.
The fall of the Shah reportedly saw the new authorities in
Iran discreetly place some high-value works on the international
market, with items of a lower cash value being defaced or
burnt, often in public ceremonies. The Taliban's period of
power in Afghanistan after the collapse of the Soviet proxy
government was similarly marked by a purge of art and antiquities
museums, along with the execution of curators and museum administrators.