Monday, June 06, 2005

Understanding the Heathen 

From "Sacrifice, Piss Christ and Liberal Excess," by Michael Casey, Anthony Fisher, OP, and Haydan Ramsay, originally published in Law, Text, Culture:
[Critic Damien] Casey, like other liberal defenders of work like Serrano's, presents the issue in terms of a clash between the interests of artists in freedom of expression on the one hand, and the hurt such works may cause to a section of the community on the other: what Christians are said to object to is the 'offensiveness' of Piss Christ. However, this is only part of the problem. Ethically speaking, what was at issue in the Serrano affair was not simply offensiveness but ‘blasphemy,' the quite different wrong of speaking against God or the Sacred, or ridiculing things consecrated to God or held sacred. Blasphemy may occur even if no Christian is offended by the act in question (e.g. because no one knows), and even if the agent firmly believes his act to be directed towards a religious end. This is precisely what makes blasphemy such a fascinating concept for contemporary philosophers, and not an outmoded, 'medieval' idea . . . .

First, accounts of the practice of religion which take it seriously on its own terms view it as a necessary part of the fulfilment of the person rather like aesthetic expression and experience, in fact. Thus in attacking religion the blasphemer is also attacking a crucial aspect of the human good, demeaning human dignity and undermining human community through that choice. Moreover, as well as offending believers and violating religion, blasphemy is an attack on God and/or the Sacred -- something unthinkable to theists, unreasonable for agnostics (for whom a certain caution or respect for God-as-not-impossible is appropriate) and senseless for atheists (who, in any case, generally acknowledge ‘the Sacred' in some sense even as they reject a personal God). Finally, in blasphemous acts the agent not only attacks other things but also un-makes himself. Blasphemy, like other moral wrongs, has grave reflexive effects on character; it makes the agent offensive, irreligious and a hater of God, and this will have serious effects on his activities, identity and relationships.

Liberal supporters of Serrano, such as Casey, draw attention to the ‘originality' and symbolic significance of his work, and characterize Christians who oppose it as backward and philistine. Casey claims that the photograph questions boundaries between the sacred and the profane, thereby ‘enacting what it represents;’ this ‘threatens the identity of conservative Christians' who try to exclude it from the public. However, to question a central intellectual distinction a work of art must do something more than use a traditional gesture for insulting God, attack religion or offend believers . . . . Casey seems not to have realised that for believers this was an assault upon their God, their divine brother, an offence from their perspective at least as great as offences against persons or property. In calling for an end to the display of this blasphemy in their public gallery people were not asking that their fragile sense of identity or boundaries be left undisturbed, but that their God be respected, their funds withdrawn from what they believed to be shameful and corrupting, and an end to their unwilling collaboration in public invitations to see what is holy reviled.
THIS JUST IN: Mr. Serrano explains that he habitually evacuated his bladder into a bucket in his loft. The bucket was situated near an air vent, and over the course of a month his urine was accidentally wafted, by a strong draft, into the vat where he'd been storing the crucifix that later appeared in his notorious photo. It was never his intention to cause such a ruckus.

So please ignore the above.

(A tip of the imperial diadem to Zemblan patriot M.S. and our revered colleague Billmon.)

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