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Aug 11 2011

The barbarians have switched gates

A few months back I wrote a post about Andres Serrano’s artistic installation “Piss Christ”. In it, I made an allusion, likening Philistine knee-jerk religious reactionaries to a horde of barbarians swarming around the gates of civilized society:

The fact is that rationality has surpassed our need for imagined explanations and intuitions  to govern our society. We can govern ourselves based on secular reason – furthermore, those regions that do this more are doing much better than their less-reasoned brethren. Those who would react to an idea by trying to destroy it, and those that think it, must not be the ones to rule us. They should be thought of, in our walled palace of reasoned thought, as barbarians banging at the gates.

Not a flattering image, to be sure, but it was not intended to be. I have nothing but the deepest contempt for those who believe the way to settle philosophical disagreements is through violence or the threat thereof.

I was disheartened, therefore, to see this story in the news:

A Manila art exhibit blasted as offensive to Catholic Filipinos has been shuttered, following complaints from President Benigno Aquino III and death threats to artists and cultural officials. The Kulo group exhibit at the state-funded Cultural Center of the Philippines opened in Manila in June. However, the show began receiving complaints after recent coverage by media outlets in the predominantly Catholic nation. Originally slated to close Aug. 21, Kulo was shut down Tuesday. Specifically, complaints focus on work by contemporary artist Mideo Cruz that mixes Catholic icons with pop culture and sexual imagery and paraphernalia.

We’ve heard about the presence of the Catholic church in the Philippines before, as they have been the chief force retarding that country making any progress toward comprehensive sex education. It’s nice to know that when they’re not dooming a generation to unwanted pregnancies and STIs, they’re still finding the time to act as art critics. Once again, though, I think they’ve completely missed the point of the exhibit:

The exhibition, entitled Poleteismo or Polytheism, includes a statue of Jesus with the ears of Mickey Mouse, and a wall collage featuring images from Christ and the Virgin Mary to the Statue of Liberty and US President Barack Obama. Mr Cruz says it is intended to be about the worship of icons. ”This speaks about objects that we worship, how we create these gods and idols, and how we in turn are created by our gods and idols,” said the Filipino artist, referring to the 300 years of Spanish rule that brought Catholicism to the Philippines and the current influences from the US.

Or maybe they aren’t. I remember one of the first problems I had with the RCC as an organization was its insistence on idolatry (yes – I used to be a bit of a zealot). You can’t walk into a church or basilica anywhere in the world without being overwhelmed with religious iconography, which is in direct contravention of the second commandment. Of course accusing the Catholic church of being hypocritical is like accusing a windstorm of being destructive: you’re absolutely right but it’s not going to listen to you. This exhibition calling Roman Catholicism a foreign idolatrous ideology might have just rubbed the Church the wrong way, and so they fixed on (what else?) sex to get everyone up in arms.

You know what they should have been up in arms about?

A day earlier former first lady Imelda Marcos joined the growing protest over the exhibition. She said Mideo Cruz’s exhibition at Manila’s cultural centre had “desecrated” something sacred. Mrs Marcos is one of the country’s main patrons of the art and founded the cultural centre in the 1970s when her husband Ferdinand was president. She saw the exhibition for herself and said she was “shocked” by it. ”There were so many symbols of the male organ there – something sacred to be desecrated. It is sad, and it should not happen here in the cultural centre,” said the 82-year-old.

The BBC uses the word “president” a bit too liberally. Ferdinand Marcos was a brutal dictator whose bloody reign was marked with corruption, violation of human rights, and assassination of political rivals. It was only 25 years ago that a huge populist uprising eventually forced him into exile, taking with him large sums of money that he and his wife embezzled from the country they had ruled mercilessly. It is thanks to his corrupt and cartoonishly-evil rule that the Philippines is in the kind of shitty shape it’s in now. And his wife has taken it upon herself to express her “shock” at how something beautiful has been desecrated. The irony of hearing this from the lips of someone who so thoroughly desecrated the principles of democratic government made my eyes swim a little.

I am not offended by this exhibit. I was slightly offended, for example, by some of the more lurid exhibits at the slavery museum in Amsterdam. I am very offended by the depiction of black men as sexual subhuman animals in pornography. Every fibre of my being – everything I have ever believed in, the very bedrock upon which I build my life, is offended by the bullshit that is the closing of an art exhibit because you don’t like the art. However, it doesn’t matter at all what offends me – I don’t have a right not to be offended. But then again, I am a rational human being, not a goddamn barbarian.

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