Across the world, religion and art have long been tied together. Religious objects are often artistically embellished and art objects have been executed with religious themes. Although these particular practices are not as prevalent as they once were, art is still used to explore religious themes. Interestingly, artists, collectors, curators and publishers are finding this vein to be a contentious issue.
On September 30th, 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve editorial cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad in an attempt to contribute to the debate regarding criticism of Islam and self-censorship. Supporters of the cartoons “claim that Muslims were not targeted in a discriminatory way since unflattering cartoons about other religions (or their leaders) are frequently printed.”1 However, these publications resulted in a number of protests and violent demonstrations across the Muslim world. One cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard (b. 1935) depicted Muhammad with a stick of dynamite in his turban. Westergaard states that he “attempted to show that terrorists get their spiritual ammunition from parts of Islam and with this spiritual ammunition, and with dynamite and other explosives, they kill people.”2 Since 2008, Westergaard has survived two attempts on his life in response to these cartoons. He is now protected by the Danish Secret Service and police surveillance.2
In her most recent book, Nomad, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a feminist, activist, writer and former member of the Dutch parliament, suggests that cartoons such as Westergaard’s should be part of a critical look at Islam, which would also include other art forms. Already, scholars—with “no political or religious agenda”—have begun to examine the Quran with “a classical academic approach.” Although such scholars have “long applied historical analysis to the Old and New Testaments,” they face death threats and often write under pseudonyms due to the nature of their research. Hirsi Ali states that a critical and scholarly examination of other religions, such as Christianity and Judaism has already begun, dating as far back as the Enlightenment.3
The critical examination of the world’s religions is not a dead thing of the past—it continues to this very day. On Monday, July 12th, 2010, the trial of two prominent Russian intellectuals concluded with both men being fined the equivalent of several thousand American dollars each rather than given the three years imprisonment that the prosecution had requested. Their crime? In 2007, Yuri Samodurov, a former director of the Sakharov Museum, and Andrei Yerofeyev, a guest curator, organized a contemporary art exhibition that included works on religious themes that had been banned by Russian museums. Despite the claims of the curators “that many of the images were meant to critique the materialism of Russian society,” the men were charged with “inciting religious and ethnic hatred.” The artwork included “an icon of the Virgin Mary with…caviar where the figures should be” and a photograph of a veiled woman with her robe flying up like the famous image of Marilyn Monroe. Such images were deemed offensive to Christians and Muslims and “prosecutors argued that the men’s activities were extremist and meant to inflame religious strife.” “After the verdict was read, he [Mr. Samodurov] said that it left virtually no public space for dialogue about religion in a secular cultural context.”4
Alexis Peskine, an artist whose work is in the collection of the New Britain Museum of American Art, is a person of an extremely diverse heritage which includes Black, White, Jewish, French, American, Russian, and Brazilian. Peskine’s He Died for US? confronts issues with which the artist is intimately familiar, such as nationality, history, race and religion. The Byzantine-style halo behind the head of the hanged, Black figure suggests the image of a martyr or saint in traditional Christian art. Yet this work is clearly not a traditional piece of religious art. It questions and challenges the traditions and institutions that it references, but the NBMAA has still chosen to collect this item and there has been no violent reaction to its presence and display.
Peskine has said “My art is just an elaborate response to my reflections about what I have witnessed. I think my diverse background helps me understand that the problem is not White on Black hatred, Jewish on Arab hatred or Arab on Jewish hatred, the problem is hatred, or domination or anything that hampers liberty and equality.”5
What is the difference between a work of art with religious motifs that honors and one that challenges? Why are some works more or less controversial depending upon the religion or region in which they are viewed? What can be done to critically examine our world religions to promote peace, knowledge and human rights, while preventing violence and censorship? Do you think it is more important to entrench freedom of speech or dance around delicate issues? Could turning critical eyes to all religions, including one’s own, allow human beings to live with a greater understanding of and tolerance for each other?
1. “Cartoons Wars: Free speech should override religious sensitivities. And it is not just the property of the West.” (The Economist, 9 February 2006).
2. Humphreys, Adrian. “The most hated man in Mecca.” (National Post, 3 October 2009), A1, A13.
3. Hirsi Ali, Ayaan. Nomad: From Islam to America (New York: Free Press, 2010), 206, 216-17.
4. Kishkovsky, Sophia. “Organizers of Art Show Convicted in Moscow.” (The New York Times, 13 July 2010), C2.
5. “Questions. Answers. Alexis Peskine.” (NatCreole.Magazine, 2007).