Friday, July 16, 2010

"Blasphemy: Art That Offends"

S. Brent Plate, Blasphemy: Art That Offends (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2006)

This is an impressive book: a full-colour collection of images deemed blasphemous (by some element of society) along with strong and insightful essays on how society categorizes art as "sacred" and "profane." Although not a traditional "scholarly" study, and not specifically devoted to legal analysis, this work is certainly a worthwhile addition to the library of anyone who is seriously studying the phenomenon of blasphemy.

The Introduction contains a brief background into the events that led to the 2005-2006 "Danish cartoon controversy", along with some general musings on blasphemy in general. Plate accurately notes that "[b]lasphemy is a contested, fluid, and dynamic category of meaning" (p. 27) and argues that "[b]lasphemy, and the accusation of blasphemy, is a culturally symbolic marker that helps define societies and religious traditions, as well as provide identities for people in terms of gender, race, class, and sexuality." (p. 27) This idea is clearly born out when one sifts through the "blasphemous" images in the book: many involve some sort of combination of sacred images along with images that redefine, distort, or undermine that image by adding erotic, gendered, commercial, or racial elements.

Chapter 1, "Defining and Delimiting Blasphemy" argues that the best way to understand blasphemy is as a deliberate intermixing of the sacred and the profane ("profane" meaning simply "everday [or] ordinary", not necessarily negative on its own). Plate, smartly in my opinion, notes that the "sacred" doesn't necessarily coincide with religious: the things that many people hold sacred in America today, for example, such as patriotism, the flag, or even the free market can give rise to the same sort of outrage if transgressed as religious items have in other places or times. The chapter also provides a very brief overview of the notion of blasphemy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Chapter 2 provides a fuller history of blasphemy in the three world monotheistic religions--a wise reader should still seek a more in-depth treatment elsewhere, but as a short introduction to the subject it could be helpful. Intriguing sections of this chapter talk about how words can become images, and how blasphemy can be seen as a means of resisting dominant culture.

Chapter 3, "Blaspheming the Gods of Modernity" explores the broadened, non-religious conception of blasphemy I mentioned earlier. It argues that one of the things many modern Westerners hold sacred is "freedom of expression", and that in many ways the Danish Cartoon Controversy involved two types of blasphemy: "If the controversy revealed what some Muslims find authoritative and sacred--that is, the Prophet Muhammad and his representation--it also proved what many modernists hold authoritative and sacred--freedom of expression. If Muhammad can be blasphemed against, then, it seems, so can expressive freedom." (p. 170)

Text aside, the images in the book are full-colour and many are full-page. Helpful captions add context and explain why particular images were or are considered blasphemous. I especially found helpful actually seeing the images that I've often only read about in legal journals: The Danish cartoons, Andrea Serrano's Piss Christ, and stills from Theo Van Gogh's Submission. For something that seems, at first glance, to be a mere coffee-table book, Blasphemy: Art That Offends turns out to be something far more.

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