After Attacks In Egypt And Libya, What The State Department Can Learn From The Art World

Late last year, the U.S. State Department sent me a response to a piece I’d written for Forbes.com about America’s ratification of UN resolution 16/18, limiting expression that can be interpreted as “defaming” religion, or as “incitement to imminent violence.”   In effect, the resolution bans any form of speech or other expression that could lead to a violent reaction, whether or not it is intended to do so; it blames the girl in the short skirt for the rape, the man carrying the wallet for the mugging, the rabbis for the Holocaust.  And I said as much.

Unsurprisingly, the State Department disagreed – the same State Department that, this morning, issued an apology to Egypt for the film, allegedly produced by an American-based Israeli, that led to riots and violence in Cairo yesterday, and the replacement of the American flag at the US Embassy there with the black flag of Islam.  That apology, as most know by now, was quickly followed by more violence, this time in Libya, and the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three members of his staff.

In all of this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of similar incidents: the slaughter of filmmaker Theo van Gogh on November 2, 2004 by a Dutch Muslim infuriated by the film “Submission,” which Theo had created with activist and then-Parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  “He should have known,” said many of the Dutch at the time, while several Dutch Muslims, writing on online bulletin boards in the hours after van Gogh was slaughtered on the streets of Amsterdam, made comments like “good riddance” and “is the pig really dead, or is this a bad joke?”

But here’s what else I thought of: the controversies that surrounded Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” in 1989, and Chris Ofili’s 1996 portrait of the Virgin Mary in elephant dung.  The first, a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in the artist’s own urine (and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts), has become practically a hallmark for art-related controversy since it was first exhibited in public, enraging the American Christian right and prompting Senate debates on public art funding (though not on the rights of artists to create whatever images excite them). No one, however, rioted. No one was hurt, let alone killed – though an example of the photograph was destroyed last year when Christian fundamentalists in Avignon, France, attacked the work as it hung in Yvon Lambert’s gallery.  (Reported the Guardian at the time,

“On Palm Sunday morning, four people in sunglasses aged between 18 and 25 entered the exhibition just after it opened at 11 am. One took a hammer out of his sock and threatened the guards with it. A guard grabbed another man around the waist but within seconds the group managed to take a hammer to the plexiglass screen and slash the photograph with another sharp object, thought to be a screwdriver or ice-pick.”)

Yet no one, not in the art world, not even in politics, criticized Lambert for exhibiting the work, never mind blaming Serrano for the civil disturbance.   And when the National Portrait Gallery in Washington censored David Wojnarowicz’s “Fire In My Belly” for its homoerotic imagery in 2010, no one sought to attack either the Smithsonian or the White House, let alone murder the curators and officials of the NEA.  What’s more, other museums around the country vied to take the work: it ended up playing not only on You Tube, but in the lobby of the New Museum in New York and CB1 gallery in LA, among others.

And Chris Ofili’s dung Madonna?  After New York mayor Rudy Giuliani condemned the painting and threatened to close down the Brooklyn Museum, where it was exhibited in 1999 as part of Charles Saatchi’s “Sensation”  – a move that was met with such fury by New Yorkers that Giuliani quickly backed down – Ofili went on to join the stable at David Zwirner, possibly the  hottest gallery of the moment.

It should, in this, escape no one’s attention that the only art organization that actually apologized for a so-called “offensive” art work was the Smithsonian – arguably as much a political institution as a cultural one.  The others had no apologies to make: not the museums, not the artists, and not the members of the art community at large.  Only the government did.

And the government, then as now, was wrong.

The point I’m making here should be obvious: we do not, in civilized societies, respond to art works and other forms of expression with violence – no matter how “offensive” we think them.   We respond with discourse. That is what civilization is.  And not only do we not apologize for it; we demand it. At least, the art world does. It’s time for the State Department to do the same.

Update:

While it appears that the American Embassy in Cairo, not the State Department, actually issued the initial statement condemning the film that incited the riots still continuing in Cairo, Hillary Clinton has now added her voice in calling the video “reprehensible” — a reprehensible remark in itself, given the omission of any condemnation of the violence. (Denmark, it should be recalled, refused to apologize, and rightly so.) Further, the State Dept’s ratification of 16/18 remains a concern, with or without these recent events.