Editor’s Note: This article is definitely not one of mine. Published in The Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time newspapers in 1997, it equated the crime of vandalism and the crime of creating artwork that religious people find offensive. I found the article reprehensible, particularly coming as it did from a newspaperman, whom I would have expected to have more respect for the First Amendment. Perhaps Mr. Pisani, who was the editor of The Greenwich Time at the time, was angling for a promotion to a newspaper in a larger city ... like Teheran. Rereading this article since then, I’ve found myself wishing I had been harder on him in my rebuttal. On the other hand, as editor, he didn’t have to allow an op-ed that was so critical of his position appear in his newspaper, so he deserves respect for letting my piece run.
— by Joseph Pisani
MELBOURNE, Australia — One teenager created a diversion at a gallery Sunday while another used a hammer to destroy a copy of Andres Serrano’s notorious photograph that shows a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine.
It was the second attack in as many days on the New York artist’s religiously charged “Piss Christ” at the National Gallery of Victoria.
Perhaps the two teenagers thought they were on a mission from God when they snuck into the National Gallery of Victoria. To cause a diversion, one of them pulled a work by Andres Serrano off the wall — probably involving bodily fluids or bestiality — while the other boy wielded his hammer and attacked the controversial photo, “Piss Christ.”
The artistic community was outraged. Some denounced it as an act of censorship, others decried it as an act of vandalism. They weren’t really sure how to characterize this misdeed, but they were convinced something heinous had been done.
This, to their thinking, was a wanton deed, a fascist outrage, a neo-Nazi sabotage, an assault inspired by the religious right. No one was safe. Besides, vandalism, anyone can tell you is a crime against humanity. Haven’t you seen the New York subway system?
And what about out freedom of expression, one of our most cherished rights in a democratic society? (Without it, we would surely be living in a tyranny, much like China, where religious persecution is rampant.)
Others insisted these lawless youths were trying to censor art and that if they didn’t like the photo, they could have shut their eyes and advised others to do the same. Or they could have taken the democratically enlightened approach to express their outrage and organize a protest. But apparently these teenagers didn’t have the time or inclination for a protest or to pass around a petition.
A great work had been defaced, greater perhaps than the Pieta by Michelangelo, which was damaged when a lunatic took a hammer to it. Indeed, there seemed to be less outcry when the Pieta was damaged.
The artist was offended, the art community was offended, the civil libertarians were offended — but none of them obviously was as offended as the two teenagers who believed the photo of crucified Christ submerged in urine wasn’t art, but rather a gratuitous assault on a person they believe to be God.
Their lawyer would probably argue that these two hormone-driven teens didn’t understand what art was because if they had, they certainly wouldn’t have tried to destroy the photo even though it seemed intentionally crafted to demean their faith. Hadn’t they ever read Aristotle? Maybe, just maybe, to their thinking it wasn’t a work of art as much as an act of religious persecution.
To the teenagers, God was degraded by being immersed in urine. This was what intellectuals couldn’t grasp as they invoked freedom of expression and censorship.
Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves why any person’s faith — Christian, Jew or Muslim — should be so debased? Should anything that people consider so sacred be so wantonly profaned — and then be given worldwide prominence in the name of art? (Protestants, Jews and Catholics had joined together outside the gallery to express their dismay, their disgust and their sadness at the exhibit.)
Perhaps it’s time to step outside our rigid ideological mindsets that lead us to condone anything in the cause of free expression, particularly abuse of others’ rights. (Oddly this absolutism extends only to freedom of expression and not to other moral issues like killing.)
Like automatons, we’re more eager to defend someone’s so-called right to debase another person’s beliefs than we are to stand up for the truth. In this case, we should ask ourselves who committed the greater injustice — the teenager or the artist?
Which crime was worse? The criminal mischief with which the two Australians were charged? Or the creation of the artist who specialized in works with urine and body fluids? Perhaps the real crime against humanity was the photograph.
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