FOLLOWING A MONTH OF PROTESTS
Last month in Australia a controversy that engaged even political leaders broke out over an exhibition of works entered for the Blake Prize for Religious Art. It included a portrayal of Christ that morphed into terrorist leader, Osama Bin Ladin, as you walked past and a statue of the Virgin in a Muslim burqa. Against accusations of blasphemy almost inevitably some protested that art is intended to shock and provoke. Which sometimes it is, though that has never been its usual or main function.
Also last month, but in Sweden, a riot involving 30 people broke out and a poster was burned at Jonkoping, a traditionally evangelical centre in Sweden and this was over a new showing of the Ecce Homo exhibition of gay themed Jesus art by Elizabeth Olsson-Wallin. This reprise took place perhaps influenced by interest generated overseas, especially in America earlier this year, through publication of Kittredge Cherry’s Art that Dares (a subject treated at Ms Cherry’s suggestion in this Blog - see July archive) and a controversial, related exhibition of “Progressive Spiritual Art” in Taos, New Mexico. Like the book the exhibition included Olsson-Wallin’s work which I shall comment on presently.
It is however because Kittredge Cherry has more recently invited me to comment on the art of Peter Grahame, who contacted her as a result of the Taos exhibition and reading her Jesus in Love novel, that I am writing this article. It will nonetheless go beyond comment on a striking piece of work from Grahame's gallery to wider and harder questions such work could pose for many people.
ART OR OFFENCE OR BLASPHEMY?
Ms Cherry gives Grahame special coverage on her new Blog (feature Sept 6th).
In an interesting development for gay spirit art and trends generally Grahame has done sensitive and “spiritual” nude photographic work (some contained in Contemplations of the Heart: A Book of Gay Male Spirit) and now a highly unusual photo-montage picture, Saying Goodbye to John and Mary featured on Ms Cherry's Blog. This work carries implications not for a gay Jesus a la Olsson but a bisexual one and is linked to a whole Magdalene mythology besides. I review this unusual picture presently but I am not so seduced by Grahame’s art – which like Ms. Cherry I agree expresses talent and beauty - not to have problems with some of the ideas and representations involved. In fact, it finally makes me try to define a few standards for judgment within this area of controversial, borderline religious/spiritual artwork of which Kittredge Cherry is a notable exponent today. Peter Grahame’s work makes me, and may be presumed to make many others, ask…
Where and when might there be a case for protesting that a line has been crossed and that a given production might reasonably be considered “offensive” to people or, rather more importantly, “blasphemous” by nature? Post-modernist attitudes which favour relativity and the self expression of individuals are not disposed to admit such questions. They nonetheless won’t and can’t go away. They are vital in our times when riots can encircle the globe because it’s felt Mohammed has been “blasphemed” (albeit in that instance political issues and personal grievances appear to have overtaken and gone far beyond whatever religious considerations might originally have been relevant).
Of the religions it’s a fact that today and in terms of rights Christianity seems unusually vulnerable – its love doctrine is popularly expected to forgive any offences to it – because while the prevalent post-modernist values of the (secular) West would disregard the problem of blasphemy their inclusiveness that embraces multi-culturalism etc is forced to respect other, less familiar religious traditions in order credibly to “include” them. So, Christianity can finish a victim in the respect stakes due to its familiarity. But within that situation where might its adherents still have a right to locate their own protest (and without falling into the violence of the recent Swedish protest?).
Before looking at pictures and considering specific examples I believe two broad basic principles could be some guide.
TWO PRINCIPLES TO INFLUENCE RIGHTS
First. Just what is a religious right? If, say, an atheistic/secular society opposed (as China has been opposed) to all religion gave believers space to build a place of worship we would not consider real freedom of worship had been granted if the permitted space was not safeguarded so that anyone could throw stones at the walls during worship or plaster the walls with hostile graffiti during the week. What is believed must be given a space in which it can be cultivated and thrive or freedom of belief is not quite real. Arguably, then, in rather the same way, if a “free” society that tolerates religion permits open abuse of that religion's iconic images and ideas the freedom principle risks compromise by a spiritual pollution that makes the “tolerated” belief that much harder to live out or represent properly to oneself or to others.
Second. "Blasphemy" needn’t be against just God and one needs to understand just what it is. Essentially it is a form of (usually aggressive) insult or rudeness liable to imply some form of misrepresentation or lie about its object. And law normally reckons to penalize libel and abuse. Theoretically, then, we could say there was some “blasphemy” of history and persons if artistically an artist chose to represent the Yalta conference that helped end WW 11, as a ballroom dance competition or an orgy. An artist might claim rights to do this “satirically” because he decided Churchill was a good dancer or a hopeless womanizer but the portrayal would not be “true” to what happened or what the world felt in February 1945. Everyone would agree – as far as truth to fact was concerned - except that relativizing post-modernist philosophy in its more radical form can excuse the artist from any truth quest. Facts don’t matter, only individual perspectives and “text” count so that the artist can make wallpaper out of history while names from Jesus to Shakespeare become words to conjure with and to stick like labels over any theme that crosses the mind.
With these two considerations in mind and for reasons I will give presently I would consider Grahame’s Saying Goodbye might have to be called if not blasphemous, a piece of serious and sensational artistic misrepresentation. To make clear just why and for purposes of comparison I will first consider some examples of work by Olsson- Wallin which have since first showing in 1998 been called blasphemous by some. All images I refer to are from the Ecce Homo exhibition and the Sermon on the Mount image along with the news from Sweden is included on Cherry’s Blog for Aug 27th as can the Saying Goodbye image for September 4th.
THE ECCE HOMO EXHIBITION
Why would I say that the Sermon on the Mount image is not actually or potentially blasphemous while contending that Saying Goodbye could be ?
The Sermon, though unexpected and quirky, is so in development of an idea. It extends and manifests a given understanding of Christian love and/or acceptance. It doesn’t violate history or biography to do so by forcing the viewer to accept that Jesus was himself gay against a record which makes no overt declarations on the subject. In fact, the Jesus figure is rather traditional. But in line with the opinions of various scholars and theologians the picture at the same time allows the possibility Jesus had gay orientation or sympathies; it invites imagination to a “what if” about this idea in the way modern thinkers believe we should inquire. But it doesn’t do so disrespectfully either to Jesus or to existing devotion. Both Jesus, who isn’t himself in leather, and the gay leather men are portrayed in typical ways. They are both simply themselves. The ensemble with its stress on acceptance and devotion is not distracted by particular interests such as if something of purely bodily or sexual desire, a biblical "lust of the eyes”, were introduced where it didn’t belong, the place of teaching of the picture’s title.
I realize that this picture could draw protest and has done but I suggest it has done so for surface reasons, for being unfamiliar, the reason that a lot of non religious art has drawn protest in the past. It is not offending or misleading at a deeper level and intrinsically.
This can then be compared with two other Ecce Homo scenes, one which I consider to be dramatically successful and the other dramatically failed. The purely suggested crucifixion scene with a shadowed cross above the body of the fallen Christ/gay bashed person left to the enveloping Stockholm night into which the bashers are disappearing is very effective. It is perhaps the picture that introduced a whole trope into gay art (one employed by several artists in Cherry’s book and exhibition) in which links are made between victims of homophobic violence and the crucified. This seriously contrasts with the Olsson’s Last Supper which I disliked from first view and have never got used to. Here the disciples have become drag queens and even Jesus slightly so because under the table he is seen to be wearing high heels.
Why is this latter image ‘wrong”, distasteful, perhaps blasphemous? Quite simply because it is misrepresentation in the way I said Churchill at a Yalta orgy would be wrong. The drag queen represents a spirit of comedy within the gay world. It’s not a question here of whether Jesus would have accepted drag queens if they had featured in his society (and in my Signs for a Messiah I give two points of evidence that something like them did so) the point rather is this. Jesus was never himself seen as a drag queen by anyone and the Last Supper wasn’t a comedy, it was super serious and it was for and about everybody, indeed rather uniquely it was at least implicitly about the whole world, not sections of it and the special rights of groups. There is therefore an unfortunate and (however unintentionally in Olsson’s case as a self declared Lutheran) a disrespect in the production of this particular image.
Curiously however it seems that in recent protests the main offending picture was the baptism by John, an image in some respects so ordinary (two men at an empty Stockholm swimming pool) I don’t feel able to comment with passion and conviction in any direction. The picture has nevertheless been criticized as primarily an image of a naked, well endowed Jesus being baptized by a John aware of Jesus’ body.
I can only say, “perhaps”, and “I suppose” because the image is hardly overwhelming as such. At the moment the Spirit is said to descend, God to speak and Jesus’ ministry to begin it would indeed be an irreverent irrelevance if historically or artistically John would be clearly concentrated on (plain ogling) Jesus’ body. But this is not exactly the case here, it’s more like there’s a passing notice. The John of history or any modern image would need to notice Jesus’ body and doubtless any gay male would - in passing- if only because in John’s case he is obliged to hold him safely! So this is difficult. Much here is “in the eye of the beholder” but the ensemble doesn’t present theme and imagery against which the blasphemy charge can easily be brought. Unless you additionally maintain a Jesus figure should never be portrayed nude. But that, although it marks a popular position, cannot really be substantiated because of the occasions Jesus was naked either from choice (apparently he removed his clothing slave-like for the foot washing of the Last Supper) or from necessity – at crucifixion victims were naked. (Still, if one desires authenticity strictly one should portray a circumcised Jesus which this baptism picture fails to do!)
PROBLEMS WITH THE VISION OF PETER GRAHAME
By contrast Saying Goodbye to John and Mary, though it’s a singularly haunting and wonderfully pretty dream piece fit for a Persian miniature, is being merely provocative. Indeed the very beauty in this instance could be considered part of the picture’s offence against truth in the way we do sometimes speak of “the lies of beauty”. The picture’s bisexual message that Cherry picks up calling her article “Exploring Jesus the Bisexual” is even curious to the extent it doesn’t issue from the artists’ own strongly affirmed gay identity and spirit (see interview, White Crane Magazine, Fall 2006). It seems designed rather to speak to popular trends in the wake of Dan Brown fiction. More to the point, the three dramatis personae of the picture are not even bodily in serious positions that suggest any kind of serious moment whether spiritual or just personal that would precede taking leave of one another or anticipating an imminent Passion.
A very ordinary, casual and naked black Jesus sits with arms around a sprawled and very white John asleep, or perhaps drunk, and a vampish Mary standing naked, somewhere between coy and provocative as she rests on one hip staring downwards towards Jesus with an unsmiling almost hard expression that might better suit a triumphant Salome bearing the head of John the Baptist. What in fact Mary holds, but rather indifferently and away from her in her right hand is the chalice above which is a butterfly, rather than, say, a dove. The bread that in the given story and received belief represents Christ’s body in the Passion and hence salvation is stuck irrelevantly on the grass like leftovers from the lovers’ picnic. Any sacrament in this dream world would tend to be Mary’s body (she is obviously more ready for anything than the naked John!). Through an archway at a distance the viewer perceives the future. A naked Jesus is ascending into the heavens as on a swing, Mary holds up a baby and John is sitting like a Hindu god on a flower garland evocative of a lotus throne and which we may assume, from text accompanying the picture is the artist’s symbol for Jesus’ word. As Grahame puts it. “…..before going to the garden's hilltop to pray, Jesus expressed his deepest most profound Love to Mary and to John, the two he loved more than his own soul.And Mary brought forth his daughter.And John brought forth his word.”
This leavetaking event is not depicted in any room but outside in a garden, not Gethsemane but some no man’s land or pre-Gethsemane inbetween in line with the new apocrypha of the text. To the extent this dreamlike location corresponds to any open space in Jerusalem we can be certain that late at night near Passover there would not have been any naked woman and probably not any clothed ones either – the event of the youth who escapes naked from the garden in Mark’s gospel is included as something quite out of the ordinary.
While Jesus wasn’t and shouldn’t be artistically portrayed (as often happens) as more or less WASP he was not black either. It violates history to portray him as such. More importantly it compromises religious sense (root theology) because it marks a refusal to acknowledge (or just realize) that Jesus’ prophetic and priestly roles were totally bound up with the idea he was a Jew of David’s line performing a function in salvation only a Jew could perform for the world because of what was understood to be the nature of Hebrew election and David’s line within world history. Historical accuracy seems therefore rather crucial here.
Yet all these observations are almost secondary to the picture’s other implications and Kitt Cherry’s advocacy of it for as an exploration of “Jesus the bisexual”.
KITTREDGE CHERRY AND PETER GRAHAME EXPLORE A BISEXUAL JESUS THEME
Cherry’s Jesus in her Jesus in Love novel is queer/bisexual but not actively in the way implied by Peter Grahame for whom the loves of Jesus appear completely physical and productive of a child in the case of the Magdalene. For Cherry because he was divine Jesus could never hope to find erotic satisfaction outside of God and realizes he even risks damaging others by having relations that would be impossible for their energies to stand. All this is frankly fictional and Cherry doesn’t have convictions regarding the orientation of the historical Jesus though she does wonder, and feels encouraged in the idea by Grahame’s vision, if Jesus would be not just human enough to have sexual feelings but in addition "enlightened" enough to have them for both sexes. In its way however the situations evoked in her novel (reviewed in my May Archive) points, even if unconsciously, to the problem of thinking at all of Jesus as “bisexual” - a modern word/concept like “homosexual.
Sexual orientation and spirituality are very big subjects beyond the scope of this article as is likewise the reasons that numbers of scholars and writers on religion suspect or claim evidence for Jesus to be thought of (in modern terms) as of gay orientation. However a few relevant points would seem to be these.
Even among those persons claiming to be or seeming to be bisexual (biblically King David almost certainly was) there is still always some measure of bias. 50/50 per cent bisexuality is unknown to psychology and nature. The bisexual is usually a person who at certain stages in their life makes a move in a different direction. David was not in love with Jonathan (whose love he rated above that of women) when he was pursuing Bathsheba and the many women he collected and who concerned him later in life when Jonathan was dead. At least some bisexuals will be content to keep sex to one sex and romance to the other. The kind of bisexual who beds with both man and woman simultaneously could be considered rather decadent, orgiastic and fixated upon the physical/material/pleasure level. This is however virtually the image Grahame presents of Jesus. He is implicitly someone who switches between John and the Magdalene or takes them together.
Unless one holds – rather radically - that there is no difference between sex/eros and Spirit then eros is spirit's mirror, a possible gateway to aspects of spiritual understanding but not the whole picture. Almost universally spiritual traditions insist on the need for "one-pointedness". A system like bisexuality, especially in its more physical expression, is not notably designed to serve that end especially not monotheistically. Spiritually it can finish like a promiscuity reflecting polytheism and I noted the marked changeablity of religious allegiance and theory possible where strong bisexual identity is claimed. (See my A Special Illumination p 89 which however doesn’t cover all the examples I had come across then or since).
The idea that Jesus could have been of third sex, or in modern terms “gay” and somehow allied to John has been an underground belief in the churches for centuries, implied in art and virtually stated by such as St Aelred of Riveaulx. Alternatively there has been the underground tradition of a heterosexual Jesus who married the Magdalene. The notion Jesus could have been bisexual appears to be completely modern. It arrives via very modern and American and Walt Whitmanesque notions - that Kittredge Cherry and her MCC church rather subscribe to - of “equality”. Once you radically accept equality theory into your religion it will seem obvious, as it early did to an MCC leader, Rev. Nancy Wilson, that Jesus should have the ability, or need, to love everyone and hence both sexes equally. Though personally he’s gay I can see how Peter Grahame has affinity with a very “bisexual” vision by the way the text of his Contemplations of the Heart states there should be “no boundaries” (yet would there be art or picture frames without them?!) and “What would total freedom be?…….the complete essence of equality” (italics mine).
My non American, European background (and perhaps cynicism) asserts itself here. Without suggesting that equality in certain areas is not an important concept and not an ideal we should hold to it cannot be imposed upon just everything, everywhere. Especially not spiritually and morally or we will never even be able to propose that one idea or act is “better” than another. (It was the problem with Walt Whitman that he couldn’t do that – as cited in a detailed analysis of the Whitman in my A Special Illumination he even suggests he can worship Satan as well as any other god). So far as I know there is not a single visionary who reveals the angelic world as being other than hierarchical (after a fashion). Even in literature as the late Kathleen Raine pointed out when poets and visionaries become visionary they begin to declare in “exalted” (high style/aristocratic) tones which are archetypally and invariably those of the otherworld. The modern egalitarian world is ordinary and is unpoetic accordingly. It also lacks the one-pointedness of the traditional mystic and while for some people “gay Christian” or “gay Jesus” remain oxymoronic terms, the human conditions referred to are at least less compromising of the mystical/spiritual obligation of one-pointedness than one suspects is possible with bisexuality.
DISCERNMENT: A GIFT OF THE SPIRIT
Grahame is an enchanted and enchanting dreamer, an artist of real imagination, but he is so far from the mystical/religious that when he contacted Kittredge Cherry he told her re her novel: “You make Jesus seem like some sweet guy I just met”. A strange way to read her Jesus and a strange way to think of one’s friends and Jesus at all yet I should say linked to his peculiar vision artistically! In Pope Benedict’s recent Jesus of Nazareth book which this non Catholic also reviewed this month, the interesting point is made that the crowds weren’t “astonished” at Jesus’ teaching, the word is more like “alarmed” realizing among other things the divinity implications to the claims. Meeting Jesus, even if Jesus was gay was never like contacting one’s last sweet friend (or trick?) but encountering someone or something rather more challenging.
Only lack of discernment, supposedly one of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:10), could let the likes of Rev Mel White of Soulforce make the over-the-top, emotion based statement that we should hear the Spirit, capital S, talking to us through Grahame’s work. (See Reviews on Grahame’s homepage). Does Rev White mean Holy Spirit? The Spirit is the Spirit of Truth who leads into Truth, into the Real, not as here the realms of psyche/imagination which leave us a Jesus with other agendas than his earliest followers lived and died to inform us he had.
I wrote appreciatively of Rev. White in my A Special Illumination survey of gay spirituality. His latest views give me some second thoughts, apart from the fact I have some purely personal ones since White’s supposedly all-welcoming organization is so far from welcoming it couldn’t even consent to put a link to my study because it was felt I had “advertised” it on my website. (How could especially Americans in their commercial Babylon cook up such objections, except that I’ve learned it’s wisdom always to assume that people and organizations that speak very liberal views won't automatically have them in practice?). So I can’t take advice about the Spirit from Rev White. There may be some elements of "gay spirit" at work in Peter Grahame but the Spirit is saying nothing at all unless to indicate a degree of misrepresentation of Jesus’ life and mission is increasingly occurring in the field of art and believers could usefully acquire and apply a few standards to issues of iconographic representation. Vision could thus be better guarded against the general spiritual pollution of the times that threaten it and personal freedom.