Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Jesus, Mo, and offensive art

Gareth Leaney writes..

This week I did something I rarely do - I signed a petition doing the rounds on Twitter. 

The petition was in support of Maajid Nawaz, who faces disciplinary action after he retweeted a cartoon from the online comic Jesus and Mo.  As the title suggests, the cartoons feature Jesus and Muhammad; they share a flat, play computer games, visit the pub and discuss faith and philosophy.  Predictably, many Christians and Muslims find the cartoons offensive (and not just because of the quality of the drawing).

The cartoons are at the center of a row that has been rumbling on for several months, since students from the London School of Economics Atheist society wore Jesus and Mo t-shirts at their Freshers fair.

During a discussion on the place of religious rights on the BBC's Big Questions (12th January 2014) the two men revealed the t-shirts, but as they unzipped their hoodies the producers chose instead to focus on the various facial reactions of other audience members.

Nawaz's response was to retweet the cartoon while explaining that he, as a Muslim, wasn't offended by it.  Since posting the cartoon, he has been accused of islamophobia and another online petition is calling for him to be removed as Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn.

As the argument continues to rumble, it raises important questions about the role of art in public life and the how we are to deal with art that offends us.

I dislike the Jesus and Mo cartoons for a few reasons.  As a Christian, I don't like they way they misrepresent Jesus (or, perhaps, the way they accurately represent the way lots of Christians misrepresent Jesus), someone who I care about a great deal.

I don't like the way some of the cartoons misrepresent my opinions (or, perhaps, the way they accurately represent some of the cringe-inducing things Christians say).  I also don't think many of them are particularly funny.

It's my right to dislike these cartoons, and it's my right to be offended by them.  But is it my right not to be offended by these cartoons, or indeed by any of the huge amount of art that challenges my opinions or criticizes my beliefs?

This kind of controversy is nothing new for Christians; artists have poked fun at Jesus and those who follow him for years, from Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (a photograph of a crucifix submerged in the artist's urine) to Jerry Springer the Opera or an occasional cameo in Family Guy.  When the BBC aired Jerry Springer the Opera they received 55,000 complaints, and live performances were picketed by Christians, with many of them claiming that the BBC should not have shown the production.

People have a right to be offended, but that is very different to imposing a right not to be offended.  The possibility of being offended goes hand in hand with the right to speak and possibly cause offence.  My freedom from being offended will cost someone else their freedom to speak out.  And a society steps in a dangerous direction when one group of people are able to silence voices they don't like. 

The arts have long been used as a tool of protest or as a way of challenging the status quo.  Throughout history, oppressive regimes have been quick to silence the artists in their midst because they recognised the power of the arts to shape public opinion and subvert authority.  Whether in the name of totalitarianism or of tolerance, when one dissenting voice is silenced everyone's freedom is at stake.

How, then, should we respond to offensive art, besides demanding silence?

One response is intelligent critique; instead of attempting to end the conversation, join it.  What has the artist got wrong?  How are you being misrepresented?  But where the artist is leveling legitimate criticisms, be careful to respond to those too.

Or, an even better response is simply to make better art.  Draw better cartoons.  Compose more compelling operas and write critiques that are more persuasive.  Rather than giving up your freedom to speak, and to potentially offend, use it and use it well.

Gareth Leaney is the Missions and Associates
Coordinator at the Michael Ots Evangelism Trust

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