The question of whether or not to be outraged at works of art is almost as old as art itself — after all, when Muslims attacked Christian churches at the time of the Crusades, they erased the faces of icons and frescoes, not simply as an act of wanton destruction, but because in the Islamic tradition one does not depict figures and faces and so these images were offensive to their beliefs.
Champions of contemporary art are not alone in arguing for free speech, but free speech is easier to argue for when you’re not the one being offended. This came to the fore in 2005 when violent protests erupted after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed cartoons showing the prophet Mohammed.
Another issue comes into play when artists, or curators, deliberately go out to shock. When Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, the Mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, threatened to close the gallery down over the showing of Turner-prize winner, Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary, which features a black Madonna, surrounded by very small angels made from pornographic magazine clippings. The painting stands on two pedestals of elephant dung.
Interestingly when Sensation was shown two years previously in London’s Royal Academy, there were also protests, but this time they were over Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Moors Murderer, Myra Hindley, while Ofili’s work was not commented on.
Different things shock different people. Images of the Virgin Mary with one bared breast were common in Renaissance art, usually in context of Mary breast-feeding the infant Jesus. In recent years, both Mary and Jesus have been depicted by artists who seek to challenge the history and the norms of art and society.
British artist Sarah Lucas made a crucifixion scene from cigarettes, while Mary has appeared in many guises, including morphing from a My Little Pony in French artist Soasig Chamillard’s My Little Mary, 2010; and in 2007 Priscilla Bracks made a statue of the Virgin in classic pose, with hands meeting in prayer, but wearing a burka, which was exhibited in Australia. Both caused their own small storms of comment and dismay.
The attraction religious icons hold for artists of all persuasions is not simply that they are an easy target, but that as immediately recognisable icons, their meanings are evident to everyone who sees them, which makes it easier for artists to use them as a vehicle for comment. While some contemporary art is about aesthetics, for other artists, the discussions raised by their work are as important as the work itself. One of Alma Lopez’s images is entitled Our Lady of Controversy, which would make it appear that to this artists at least, controversy is part and parcel of her intent.
* Gemma Tipton is an art critic and is currently guest artistic director of Kinsale Arts Week July 9-17.