So conservative pundit Kathleen Parker recently wrote a column about the latest art kerfuffle, the Chocolate Jesus (a.k.a. My Sweet Lord). While I actually agreed with at least some of the gist of her piece (Catholics shouldn't be issuing death threats over religious imagery they find offensive -- kind of a hard point to argue with), she also made this comment:
"Catholics have been under siege by the secular culture for years, confronted with everything from rock star Madonna's antics to "Piss Christ" to a Virgin Mary painting adorned with elephant feces. All were intended to provoke -- gratuitously."
The "gratuitously" really ticked me off. Her point seems to be that recent disrespectful or mocking use of Islamic imagery in art (like the Danish cartoons) is okay because it's critiquing the way the religion has been manipulated by power-hungry jerks... but disrespectful or mocking use of Christian imagery in art? Well, there's no point to that at all. That's just gratuitous, offending for the pure purpose of being offensive. (She also seems unaware that neither the Piss Christ artist nor the elephant dung Virgin Mary artist intended their art to be disrespectful or mocking.)
So I wrote this letter to the editor in response. It didn't get published... but what else is a blog for, if not to share my unpublished rants to the editor?
The fact that Kathleen Parker (Opinion, 4/6/07) would characterize artists Chris Ofili ("The Holy Virgin Mary"), Andres Serrano ("Piss Christ"), and Madonna as "gratuitously" provoking about religion makes it clear that she hasn't bothered to do even minimal research on any of these artist's intentions. All these artists (even Madonna, for whom I have no great love) have discussed the ideas and impulses behind their religious-themed art, and upsetting people for no reason other than to upset them is not among them.
The sad fact is that religion enjoys an absurdly privileged position in the marketplace of ideas. Religion and religious institutions are tremendously powerful in this country -- and yet it's assumed that religion should be exempt from the criticism, commentary, and even mockery that are commonly leveled at powerful institutions. I understand that Ms. Parker is provoked by certain uses of religious imagery in art -- but just because she doesn't see their point doesn't mean they're pointless.
But now I'm sorry that I wrote the letter before I consulted with Ingrid. Because, as usual, she completely hit the nail on the head. "Piss Christ and Madonna?" she said. "That's what she's worked up about? What decade is she in, anyway? That is so '80s."
And she's right. Outrage over "Piss Christ" and "Like a Prayer" is such a 1989 time capsule, I almost expect to see it on VH1's "I Love the '80s." It's almost quaint.