Respectful Insolence

More people unclear on the concept

Palm Sunday seems an opportune time to mention how religious sensitivity all too often seeks to muzzle artistic expression and freedom of speech in the U.S. You may have heard of Cosimo Cavallaro’s 200 lb. milk chocolate sculpture of Jesus on the cross called My Sweet Lord that was getting religious nutcase Bill Donohue so up in arms last week, leading to some threatening-sounding language while calling for a boycott of the hotel that houses the gallery where the sculpture was to be displayed during Holy Week:

As I’ve said many times before, Lent is the season for non-believers to sow seeds of doubt about Jesus. What’s scheduled to go on at the Roger Smith Hotel, however, is of a different genre: this is hate speech. And choosing Holy Week–the display opens on Palm Sunday and ends on Holy Saturday–makes it a direct in-your-face assault on Christians.

All those involved are lucky that angry Christians don’t react the way extremist Muslims do when they’re offended–otherwise they may have more than their heads cut off. James Knowles, President and CEO of the Roger Smith Hotel (interestingly, he also calls himself Artist-in-Residence), should be especially grateful. And if he tries to spin this as reverential, then he should substitute Muhammad for Jesus and display him during Ramadan.

Friday, it was reported that the hotel caved in to the pressure:

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NEW YORK (AP) — A planned Holy Week exhibition of a nude, anatomically correct chocolate sculpture of Jesus Christ was canceled Friday amid complaints from Catholics, including Cardinal Edward Egan.

The “My Sweet Lord” display was shut down by the hotel that houses the Lab Gallery in Manhattan, said Matt Semler, the gallery’s creative director. Semler said he resigned after officials at the Roger Smith Hotel shut down the show.

The artwork was created from more than 200 pounds of milk chocolate and features Christ with his arms outstretched as if on an invisible cross. Unlike the typical religious portrayal of Christ, the artwork does not include a loincloth.

The 6-foot sculpture was the victim of “a strong-arming from people who haven’t seen the show, seen what we’re doing,” Semler said. “They jumped to conclusions completely contrary to our intentions.”

But word of the confectionary Christ infuriated Catholics, including Egan, who described it as “a sickening display.” Bill Donohue, head of the watchdog Catholic League, said it was “one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever.”

The hotel and the gallery were overrun Thursday with angry phone calls and e-mails. Semler said the calls included death threats over the work of artist Cosimo Cavallaro, who was described as disappointed by the decision to cancel the display. (Watch Cavallaro touch up the sculpture, explain its purpose )

“In this situation, the hotel couldn’t continue to be supportive because of a fear for their own safety,” Semler said.

Westerners, including me, justifiably bemoaned how Muslims rioted and threatened the Danish cartoonists who published cartoons of Mohammed last year. It was truly an example of how religious sensitivity cannot stand satire or mockery of religion. Donohue is full of crap (as usual) when he labels this exhibit “hate speech.”

Far be it from me, though, to say that people cannot speak out against that which offends them and shouldn’t organize boycotts if they feel strongly about something. However, I can’t help but point out that the reaction of the Catholic League is different from the reaction of Muslims last year to the Mohammed cartoons only in degree. It’s the very same impulse at work here: To silence the infidel by any means available. Donohue may point out that the artist is “lucky” that Christians don’t act the same way that extremist Muslims do when they’re offended, but he’s being disingenuous. The death threats received by the hotel staff reveal that at least some Christians do, in fact, act exactly the same way that extremist Muslims do when they perceive an offense against their religion. Donohue may whine when the gallery’s creative director likens the actions of the Catholic League to issuing a fatwa, but there is a grain of truth there, given that there’s little doubt that Donohue’s inflammatory rhetoric is inspiring some “Christians” to threaten violence. He’s been all over the media calling this a “direct in-your-face assault on Christians,”declaration of war on Christian sensibilities,” and “hate speech.” Joan Walsh got it right when she wrote:

Ah, but no troubling mysteries for Big Bill Donohue! No suggesting Catholics and other Christians have commercialized Easter! No suggesting that Jesus was chocolate-colored! There are anti-Catholic bigots to fight, or better yet, to invent. Cavallaro’s “My Sweet Lord” struck me as, well, sweet. It definitely didn’t scream “NAKED JESUS–GENITALS EXPOSED–CRUCIFIED.” But then, like so much art, it’s a bit of a Rorschach test, and Donohue’s horror at the big chocolate Jesus gives us much more disturbing insight into his character than into Cosimo Cavallaro’s.

Here’s a novel idea for Mr. Donohue: If you don’t like the exhibit, just don’t go to it. What a radical concept! Of course, it’ll never happen. Donohue has learned that his ranting gives him power, the power to squelch what he perceives as attacks on Catholicism (whether they are in fact attacks or not or simply something that offends Mr. Donohue’s reactionary sensibilities) and, failing that, the power to get his message into all the major media outlets. He’s not likely to change when his present bullying tactics work so well for him.

Comments

  1. #1 John Wilkins
    April 1, 2007

    I am getting tired of being told what I may or may not see, by Catholics and Fundamentalists who think because they don’t like it, nobody else should get the chance. They were not elected to make these decisions, and they have no right in a secular society to do so.

  2. #2 wolfwalker
    April 1, 2007

    When I first heard about this, I had three thoughts in rapid succession:

    1) to me, it sounds like a stupid way to use perfectly good chocolate, as well as being a generally stupid idea for an Easter exhibit.

    2) Christian fundies will be up in arms about it

    3) they’ll probably be justified in that attitude. I don’t remember the last time I heard of a public-gallery display on any Christian holiday or topic that wasn’t intended to mock Christianity at some level. Crucifixion displays always show Jesus with the loincloth. What’s the point of having him naked, if not to offend?

    It was truly an example of how religious sensitivity cannot stand satire or mockery of religion.

    Very few people can stand to have their core beliefs questioned. Even those who make a living questioning other people’s core beliefs. And that’s even more true when the “questioning” is really just a crude attempt at rabble-rousing.

    As far as I’m concerned the religion-attackers should be treated like woo-purveyors (and, come to that, like the devoutly religious themselves): let them fleece their own flocks of sheeple as they will, but they should not get in the face of those who don’t agree with them. And they shouldn’t harm the innocent. If they can do that by self-control, fine. If not, then stronger measures are called for. This exhibit was clearly an in-your-face thing. The gallery shouldn’t have done it.

  3. #3 TheProbe
    April 1, 2007

    Memo to the artist:

    Next time use white chocolate.

  4. #4 epador
    April 1, 2007

    As one who worships chocolate as manna from heaven, I find the display offensive to my beliefs!

  5. #5 Orac
    April 1, 2007

    Next time use white chocolate.

    Great minds must think alike. My wife made the very same comment last night when I mentioned the story to her. I was going to add a sarcastic comment along those lines to the already written piece, but never got around to it. (I’m on call this weekend and had to go in to round on my partners’ patients.) I really do think that there is a bit of an element of people like Donohue not wanting to be reminded that Jesus was probably fairly dark-skinned, as opposed to the usual lily-white portrayals that have been made of him throughout the years.

    As for wolfwalker’s comments, all I can say is: Give me a break. So what if people don’t like to have their core beliefs questioned? So what if the exhibit was an intentional “in-your-face” sort of thing? Why should anyone’s core beliefs, be they religious or secular, be exempt from such mockery or criticism? They shouldn’t. There is no right not to be offended by someone else’s speech, nor should there be. That’s the price we pay for being in an allegedly free and secular society, and artists since time immemorial have intentionally provoked with their art. Nothing wrong with that. As for me, alties and various woo-meisters question my core beliefs all the time, and you don’t see me trying to shut them up. Quite frankly, such a hysterical response to what is a rather silly and light-hearted exhibit makes Donohue and his ilk look far more ridiculous than the provocative art could ever make Jesus look.

    So what if some artist gets provocative and makes a chocolate Jesus to be displayed during Holy Week? He got far more attention from the very predictable response of blowhards like Donohue than he could ever have gotten otherwise, although I’m guessing he probably didn’t anticipate death threats.

  6. #6 Davis
    April 1, 2007

    This exhibit was clearly an in-your-face thing. The gallery shouldn’t have done it.

    Yes, let’s hide all art looking to provoke a reaction from its audience. Galleries should only display Thomas Kinkade (Painter of Light), so as not to offend anyone. Now that’s art!

  7. #7 Joshua
    April 1, 2007

    If Donohue hadn’t flipped his shit, would any of us have even heard of this?

    In the immortal words of Garfield the cat: Big, fat, hairy deal.

  8. #8 Skeptico
    April 1, 2007

    Those death threats certainly demonstrate the love of Christ and the spirit of turn the other cheek. These people clearly find their faith to be very comforting in times like this.

  9. #9 blf
    April 1, 2007

    What’s the point of having him naked, if not to offend?

    Accuracy? The Romans crucified people naked (men, women, and children).

  10. #10 Ubu Walker
    April 1, 2007

    I am surprised that no one actually “understands” this piece of art. What do people give children on Easter? Chocolate Rabbits and Easter Eggs. Isn’t it more fitting to give a child a “chocolate baby jesus” or a “chocolate jesus” instead, to celebrate Christ? This is hypocrisy at its best!

  11. #11 Chayanov
    April 1, 2007

    Many religious people I know (not all Christian) have discovered Paul Woodruff’s “Reverence” and are arguing, like him, that we need more reverence in our society. I think that’s absurd — reactions to the chocolate Jesus and Mohammed cartoons are proof that we need less reverence in our society. Nothing should be held so sacred that it is beyond question and above reproach.

  12. #12 sailor
    April 1, 2007

    You guys do nut understand art. This sculpture was a HUGE success, even without being shown. It demonstrated the almost exact similartitew between Christians and Mulims, it pointed out how intolerant all religions are. A work of genius.

  13. #13 Brent
    April 1, 2007

    I guess you could say that in this case the medium is the message. I can’t see any groups having an objection to the artwork if it were done in a more traditional material, such as bronze. Well maybe they’d object to the nudity but the Roman’s were both practical and cruel – remember the story of the legionairies dicing for Christ’s clothes? – and in a society where viewing nudity was one of the oldest taboos (remember what happened to Noah’s son Ham when he accidentally saw he father naked) seeing someone you loved dying naked would have been a major warning to any followers of Jesus. No, it’s the chocolate that is the problem but of course the religious types are too busy seeing blasphemy to recognise this work as a commentary on our modern commerce driven society where for many people Easter is symbolised by a rabbit who gives out chocolate treats rather than by Christ on a cross or Christ risen.

  14. #14 Rebecca
    April 1, 2007

    The whole idea of a chocolate Jesus is trite. If Cavallaro wanted be really provocative, he would have dressed a toy bunny up in a loin cloth and a crown of thorns and nailed it to a cross.

    Now that’s art!

  15. #15 Ahistoricality
    April 1, 2007

    Orac, I hadn’t heard of it: many thanks. Most of what I’d say about it has already been said by your commenters (I particularly like Rebecca’s concept for next year’s show).

    I wonder what will become of the work: auction off pieces of it….

  16. #16 David Ratnasabapathy
    April 1, 2007

    This is off-topic.

    Brent wrote,

    … in a society where viewing nudity was one of the oldest taboos (remember what happened to Noah’s son Ham when he accidentally saw he father naked)…

    Robert D. Lane, in “Reading the Bible” points out, in chapter 2, that “to see someone naked” is an euphemism for sex. Specifically, for in_cest.

    Ham may have done more than just look :-)

  17. #17 Melanie
    April 1, 2007

    From the Roman Catholic Communion Rite

    Communion Minister: The body of Christ. Communicant: Amen.
    Communion Minister: The blood of Christ. Communicant: Amen.

    If a Catholic has problems with alcohol and celiac disease, you are basically SOL at the communion rail.

    There are limits on blood sacrifice which Donohue seems to miss.

  18. #18 wolfwalker
    April 1, 2007

    Orac, you asked: So what if people don’t like to have their core beliefs questioned? So what if the exhibit was an intentional “in-your-face” sort of thing? Why should anyone’s core beliefs, be they religious or secular, be exempt from such mockery or criticism?

    Why shouldn’t they be? What’s the point of attacking another person’s core beliefs if those beliefs have no effect on you?

    There is no right not to be offended by someone else’s speech, nor should there be.

    True. There is no right, either in law or society, to take offense where none is intended. There is, however, a recognized right to take offense when offense clearly is intended, and to act on it. Numerous aspects of civil law recognize that intentionally offensive speech is not protected by the First Amendment — for example, libel and slander law, or laws against corporate espionage. Even criminal law recognizes that some “speech” is not protected: criminal espionage law, the “fighting words” doctrine, laws against incitement to riot.

    More to the point, however, do you really believe that the mere fact you can legally do something means that you should do it? Does it matter to you if an act or speech damages society to no good end?

    Sailor, if your claim were true, then the museum would be lying in ruins right now, and the artist who created the statue and the director who decided to show it would both be dead of sudden high-velocity lead poisoning.

  19. #19 Orac
    April 1, 2007

    Why shouldn’t they be? What’s the point of attacking another person’s core beliefs if those beliefs have no effect on you?

    Because in a truly free society, there is no topic whose discussion should be automatically off-limits–particularly if the reason is simply because someone is “offended” by discussion of it. From my perspective, it is those who would argue that we should restrict speech that must make the case that the benefit to be had from restricting free speech outweighs the loss of liberty entailed by such restrictions.

    There is, however, a recognized right to take offense when offense clearly is intended, and to act on it. Numerous aspects of civil law recognize that intentionally offensive speech is not protected by the First Amendment — for example, libel and slander law, or laws against corporate espionage. Even criminal law recognizes that some “speech” is not protected: criminal espionage law, the “fighting words” doctrine, laws against incitement to riot.

    None of which applies to this situation, as you well know. Libel and slander only apply to individuals, not religions, for example, and the bar is veyr high to prove them: publishing an intentional falsehood or demonstrating a “reckless disregard for the truth,” plus quantifiable financial damages relating to the speech, none of which apply in this case. Similarly, this is nothing like corporate espionage, either. As for “fighting words,” do look over Brandenberg v. Ohio. The speech must represent an immediate and credible threat to result in “imminent lawless action” to qualify for being suppressed, and this is another high bar to overcome. Ditto threats of physical violence, which must be credible and specific to be considered not free speech.

    But in reality you’re just throwing up red herrings. We’re not talking about the government stepping in to suppress this exhibit; we’re talking about the thuggish and bullying tactics of Donohue and the Catholic League. Donohue have ever right to speak out, but he has a history of trying at ever opportunity to use every tool at his disposal to suppress criticism of Catholicism (whether real or imagined by him), and his inflammatory rhetoric is custom-designed to fire people up, including the nuts. And, no, I do not discount the possibility that violence might have occurred if the hotel hadn’t caved, given the threats they received. You can’t assume people making such threats won’t act on them. I certainly wouldn’t have.

    More to the point, however, do you really believe that the mere fact you can legally do something means that you should do it? Does it matter to you if an act or speech damages society to no good end?

    Oh, please. Give me a freakin’ break with the straw man argument! I never said that just because you can do something means that you should do it. However, I’m more interested in your second claim, so please, explain: How on earth does My Sweet Lord “damage society”? Do tell, and please be specific. Are you honestly trying to argue that sculpting Christ in chocolate somehow “damages” society? I just don’t see it.

  20. #20 Pseudonym
    April 1, 2007

    Personally, I think this artwork was brilliant. Far from being a mockery of Christian beliefs, when I first heard about it, I though it sounded like an excellent statement on the way that religious festivals get co-opted by retailers.

    Having said that, this Onion article seems appropriate. Oh, and this one.

  21. #21 Andy
    April 1, 2007

    wolfwalker:

    I am outraged. Your choice of pseudonym is clearly an intentional attack on my core beliefs. Wolves are the embodiment of celestial deities and could never be ‘walked’. Such a suggestion is blasphemous and a crime against God. Kindly change it, or lose your petting privileges for life!

  22. #22 steppen wolf
    April 1, 2007

    These are called ignorance and bigotry – the same that made the Vatican order that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel’s painted be veiled not to reveal the genitals.

    The whole idea of the chocolate Christ is to make people think of what we are turning Easter into every year: an occasion to buy sweets, to consume sugar, instead of a moment of thought. A moment of thought whether you are a Christian or not, because yes, this Christ is naked, dark, and makes us think of how inappropriate it might be – this if you are a Christian – to eat chocolate on Christ’s death day. And of the level of consumism the functioning of our society is based on.

    I therefore find the “scandal” raised by these fundamentalists to be quite ironic. The sculpture is quite an amazing piece of art, and I am saddaned by the fact that the gallery bowed down to both ignorance and bigotry.

  23. #23 Francesco Franco
    April 2, 2007

    I am getting tired of being told what I may or may not see, by Catholics and Fundamentalists who think because they don’t like it, nobody else should get the chance. They were not elected to make these decisions, and they have no right in a secular society to do so.

    Mmm….tell me about it!! Care to try living in Italy for a little while?

  24. #24 Greg
    April 2, 2007

    “What’s the point of attacking another person’s core beliefs if those beliefs have no effect on you?”

    Some folks’ core beliefs seem to have had a very direct effect on Cavallaro, Knowles, the owners and operators of Roger Smith Hotel, and an unknown numer of others who wished to view the sculpture.

  25. #25 wolfwalker
    April 2, 2007

    Orac, you asked: However, I’m more interested in your second claim, so please, explain: How on earth does My Sweet Lord “damage society”? Do tell, and please be specific.

    It damages society because it damages the structure of mutual respect that society needs in order to function. No society can function if its members have no respect for one another as individuals. If Person A can and does casually insult Person B’s most important and strongly held beliefs, suggesting in the process that B is somehow a lesser form of intelligence because B believes this obviously stupid or ignorant or wrong thing, then what’s to stop Person B from doing the same to Person A? Nothing, of course.

    You probably read that and think “so what? That’s as it should be. The answer to offensive speech isn’t censorship, it’s more speech.” Under most circumstances, I agree. But empirical experience proves that when the offensive speech passes a certain level, the result is that A starts to honestly believe that B is inferior, and B becomes obsessed with the need to counterattack, either by escalating the offensiveness level in his own rhetoric, or by silencing A by force. In very short order you’re involved in a downward spiral that can only end badly. In extreme cases it ends in violence.

    And yet, the whole sorry mess could have been avoided if A had just exercised a little bit of responsibility in the first place, and not given offense when he didn’t have any good reason to.

    I see this going on every day, in almost any discussion on almost any topic. On the Web, on usenet, in newspapers, on talk radio, in the halls of state legislatures and of Congress — as long as the various factions maintain mutual respect, real discussion is possible. But when respect is lost, so is any chance for a mutually acceptable solution. In view of that fact, it’s my contention that if anyone is about to take an action, or make a speech, that is intentionally offensive to another person’s core beliefs, then that choice ought to be looked at with a very skeptical eye. If its only goal is to offend or malign the other person, and it won’t accomplish anything positive, then don’t do it.

    (PS: I fully expect that somebody will try to counter this using standard internet “I don’t like this POV so I’ll discredit it by merciless mockery” tactics. I suggest you not waste the effort, because it will only support my point. Mockery of a seriously held and seriously argued belief might amuse you for a few minutes, but I can guarantee it will make me feel rather less inclined to accept anything you say, on this topic or any other.

    And if you read this PS and react with anger or even annoyance, then you also support my point. See how you react when somebody belittles you in an arrogant and patronizing tone? What makes you think that other people don’t react the same way?)

  26. #26 Ginger Yellow
    April 2, 2007

    “And yet, the whole sorry mess could have been avoided if A had just exercised a little bit of responsibility in the first place, and not given offense when he didn’t have any good reason to. ”

    I’ve yet to see anyone explain why this work is offensive, beyond “OMG Jesus has a penis!” or “OMG it’s chocolate!” You really don’t have to be particularly generous to come up with an interpretation of the piece which is profoundly pious. The two practising Catholics I know well, one a philosopher and the other the editor of a major Catholic newspaper, both think it’s an excellent piece of art.

  27. #27 Robert M.
    April 2, 2007

    I’ve yet to see anyone explain why this work is offensive…

    Precisely. As art, it’s excellent, respecting its subject matter while it challenges the idea of Easter as a secular holiday devoted to excess. The sculpture’s nudity plays into the theme, as well–it literally uncovers Christ, just as it asks the viewer to nakedly re-examine their own beliefs. Nothing about the piece screams “sacrilege” to me, and indeed it could have been composed and executed by a committed and concerned Christian without the faintest wisp of cognitive dissonance.

    In regard to wolfwalker’s comments, “disrespect to religion” is explicitly protected speech. Perhaps the framers of the Constitution were secure enough in their beliefs that they didn’t feel the need to shut down all rational discussion of religion and its claims.

  28. #28 Ginger Yellow
    April 2, 2007

    “Nothing about the piece screams “sacrilege” to me, and indeed it could have been composed and executed by a committed and concerned Christian…”

    It was. Obviously I can’t vouch for his piety, but Cavallaro claims to be a practising Catholic.

  29. #29 anonimouse
    April 2, 2007

    As a Catholic I found the display a bit over-the-top and vaguely offensive, but I certainly wouldn’t call for the display to be taken down and I’m sure as heck not going to call it “hate speech”. Last I checked, the artist wasn’t suggesting that all Christians die or anything like that.

  30. #30 Ginger Yellow
    April 3, 2007

    Can you say what about it you find offensive?

  31. #31 miller
    April 3, 2007

    I don’t understand why this is even considered offensive. I mean, it’s not like Catholics have any belief against portraying Jesus in art, as do Muslims with Muhammad. Seriously, they hang miniature crucifixes with Jesus on walls, and wear them around their necks. And the fact that he’s naked is just a detail.

    I suppose you could construe the deeper meaning as being anti-Christian, but I just don’t see Donohue explaining it as such.

  32. #32 Davis
    April 3, 2007

    It damages society because it damages the structure of mutual respect that society needs in order to function.

    By the exact same argument we should eliminate all partisan politics, because at its core it involves people attacking each other’s deeply-held beliefs.

    Somehow I suspect you don’t actually support that idea, though. So where do you draw the line?

  33. #33 Tyler DiPietro
    April 4, 2007

    “It damages society because it damages the structure of mutual respect that society needs in order to function. No society can function if its members have no respect for one another as individuals.”

    So criticism leveled at someone’s belief system entails the eventual breakdown of mutual respect? By this measure, just about any criticism of any viewpoint “damages society”. Secular philosophies are often as deeply held as religious creeds, and I don’t see any shortage of people on this board sparing them from criticism of any level of abrasiveness. This would include you, btw, as I’m quite familiar with your posting MO on these boards.

    Religion shouldn’t be exempt in our society from criticism simply because some people feel they have a right not to be “offended”.

  34. #34 Jim Lippard
    April 7, 2007

    “The whole idea of a chocolate Jesus is trite. If Cavallaro wanted be really provocative, he would have dressed a toy bunny up in a loin cloth and a crown of thorns and nailed it to a cross.”

    Paul Krassner did that for an April cover when Larry Flynt made him editor of Hustler magazine (during his born-again Christian phase).

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