Attacking the Bible: an artist’s false bravado

A Scottish art gallery attacks the Bible, goes easy on the Koran. Should we be surprised?
Brian Lilley | Aug 7 2009 | comment  

If being denounced in public is the highest honour an artist can receive these days, then the Vatican has bestowed a very high honour upon Anthony Schrag and David Malone.

Schrag and Malone are the organisers of an exhibit at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art that, among other things, encouraged people who felt marginalized by the Bible to write their way back into the Holy Book. What Schrag says was meant to be a “…an open gesture” to those who have been excluded, quickly spiralled downward into infantile attacks on Christianity and the Bible.

The Daily Mail newspaper quotes a Vatican priest, cited as an advisor to the Pope, as saying “It is disgusting and offensive.” After viewing the exhibit myself on a recent trip to Glasgow, I’m more inclined to say the work is pathetic.

The scribbled-in Bible has now been covered over in glass and those wishing to write their way back into the Book are encouraged to write their thoughts on the paper provided next to the exhibit. The gesture, seen as a way to stop the aggressive attacks against the Bible, has not raised the level of discourse above what was previously scribbled before the glass covering appeared. Shouts of “FACIST GOD” or “bi + proud” really fail to move along discussions about homosexuality and the Bible; all they really show is what we already know, angry graffiti artists are often bad at spelling.

The Vatican is hardly alone in expressing displeasure at the exhibit. A Church of Scotland spokesman said, “We would discourage anyone from defacing the Bible”, while Simon Calvert, with the Christian Institute, says, “People writing on the Bible doesn't change the truth.” But of course, as with all things Christian these days, there is not complete unity; a Glasow area church actually helped organise the exhibit.

Rev. Jane Clarke, pastor with Glasgow’s Metropolitan Community Church, says, “Many people will tell you there are no LGBT people in the Bible so we invited visitors to the exhibition to write their names in a Bible to show that there are.” The logic in that statement is difficult to understand, but also hard to fathom is that the good pastor or the artists involved, claiming shock, could not have forseen someone writing, as they did, “F*** the Bible.” Yet Clarke says she never thought that would happen,

“I had hoped that people would show respect for the Bible, for Christianity and indeed for the Gallery of Modern Art. I am saddened that some people have chosen to write offensive messages. However some of the postings reflect the anger of those writing it, an anger that we have for so long been excluded from the love of God.”

What I feel excluded from at the moment is the world of art and unlike private religion, the public is forced to pay for this attack on what many of them hold dear. The exhibit is not only housed in the city-owned gallery, but was designed by the gallery’s artisit-in- residence, Anthony Schrag and given a budget of £7,000, all taxpayer money.

While many ordinary Glaswegians just shake their heads at the display, Calvert says, “That a taxpayer subsidised gallery should see fit to give space to something like that is disappointing.” He’s not alone. Susie Squire, of the TaxPayers' Alliance, tells the Daily Mail, “People pay their council tax to get their bins collected, not to fund pornography and destruction of religious texts.”

Did I forget to mention the art show includes pornography? It’s mostly on other floors, but all part of the wider sh[OUT] exhibit. I’ve come to simply expect pornography, not nude art, but actual pornography when I visit modern art galleries; the kind of material I’d be arrested for displaying outside of a publicly funded art show.

But putting aside the lewd nature of some pieces, the quality of the work is so pitiful as to leave me wondering whether the gallery should be charging the artists £7,000 to display their work. As someone who has attended more than his share of openings and shows, the sh[OUT] exhibit fails to rise above the quality of work I would expect from first-year university students. Is there artistic merit in photos of a woman ripping pages out of the Bible to eat them or shove them up her nose as Roxanne Claxton does? Anthony Schrag, who holds a masters degree in art, thinks so, “Roxanne gave a performance where she ate a Bible and it became part of her.”

Try doing any of this with the Koran.

While the artists no doubt see themselves as challenging society and promoting social justice, the brave souls are much more timid when it comes to Islam. The two “art pieces” that deface the Bible are in a room off a balcony on Goma’s third floor; the balcony area itself also includes many photographs of members of Scotland’s LGBT community posing as figures from the Bible itself, including Christ and the Virgin Mary. There are no photographs of a gay Mohamed.

Instead the issue of homosexuality and Islam is dealt with not by defacing the Koran or showing a queer prophet, but through a small display of four photographs. Three of the photographs show a number of men in a mosque, one man is clearly an outsider; even during prayers he stands alone, fully clothed, but alone. In the fourth photograph, three men, again all clothed as far as we can see, sit up in a bed, their legs under the covers.

When speaking of Schrag’s exhibit, the Vatican priest cited by The Daily Mail said, “They would not think of doing it to the Koran” and he is right, they would not and did not. I have no doubt that in today’s Scotland, an art exhibit that treated Islam as this current exhibit treats Chrtistianity would be not only denied public funds, but also swept down upon by police, threats of prosecution hanging in the air. The brave artists willing to take on Christians who back the idea of freedom of expression are also keenly aware that they would face far worse retribution at the hands of angry mobs.

What is infuriating about this exhibit though is not that the Bible has been defaced, a faith that cannot withstand attack is a weak faith. The infuriating part is the double standard applied by Scotland’s elites to this art exhibit, a double standard played out time and again across the Western world.

From the decision by Berlin’s Deutsche Oper to cancel a performance of Idomeneo because of fear of the risk of offending Islam, to the decision by a Canadian human rights council to prosecute a magazine for publishing the Mohamed cartoons alongside their story on the worldwide riots and killings the cartoons were causing, Western elites look to protect Islam and themselves while lashing out at Christianity and the foundations of the civilisation that brought them freedom of expression.

I don’t want to see Mr. Schrag, Ms. Claxton or any other artist live in fear of a violent Christian fundamentalism, and they currently do not, but I do think that those who fund and green light these sorts of projects for publicly funded art should at least treat all religions with the same degree of respect but such thinking might be considered too daring in today's art world.

Brian Lilley is the Ottawa Bureau Chief for 1010 CFRB in Toronto and CJAD 800 in Montreal. He is also Associate Editor of Mercatornet. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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