I suppose it comes as no surprise that one of my favorite artists is Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe pushed the boundaries of his time with the homo-erotic imagery and S&M photographs. He gave the religious right apoplexy before his death in 1989, and while his controversial pictures seem plain juvenile to me today, his portraits of Patty Smith, flowers and nude studies remain timeless. Whenever someone mentions the cliche “(blank) issue isn’t black and white” I visualize Mapplethorpe’s photograph below with its seemingly endless shades of gray between the purest white and void-like blacks. Yes there may be gray areas in life, I like to think to myself, but there are also stark black and flawless white ones too.
Today’s young artists like to stir up a few Christians or Jews to appear edgy and prod the boundaries of free speech. With luck they’ll get a few write ups in the local paper; if they are really lucky, maybe a national paper or a magazine will hold them up as paragons of artistic freedom. Only a select few will be picked up by conservative talk radio and Fox News as examples of the decline of civilization, igniting their careers and guaranteeing write ups in Vanity Fair and the New Yorker – maybe even netting them academic tenure.
But they shouldn’t kid themselves; they are playing it safe. They are taking roads that are well traveled with guard rails, road signs and speed limits to protect them from harm and control them as they express themselves. As long as they stay on the road by attacking safe topics like conservatives, Republicans, capitalism, Christians and Jews, they’ll end up at their destination. But swerve off the road and they end up in the ditch like Theo VanGogh and Hirsi Ali. Ten minutes of film killed the former and drove the latter into exile without a peep from liberals.
I’m all for riling up Muslims. If I was a young artist-pretender, I would be doing acts that would push the boundaries of art and piss them off. Such acts would be guaranteed to get me press around the world, including plenty of national coverage by the politically correct mainstream media aghast at my insensitivity to Islam.
Muslims deserve to be prodded and poked. They take their religion so seriously that even the slightest offense sets them barking “Death to America”, burning flags and issuing fatwas. Whether it’s cartoons or the Koran Muslims seem to get their tails in a twist over just about anything.
The controversy over the Koran burning shows the strength of America. Here we have the head of a tiny group of wackos in Florida that wants to do something against the will of most of America’s leaders but not against its law. Even the president himself cannot do anything to stop him except appeal to his “better angels”. Conservatives, liberals, Republicans and Democrats have all voiced their opposition to this man’s action – yet on Saturday night at 6pm if he decides to go through with it, he can.
Given what I’ve said so far it may seem that I support his action, but I don’t. As I stated recently regarding the controversy over the mosque at Ground Zero in New York City, just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean that you should. Actions do have consequences, and even though Muslims need to get worked up, it shouldn’t be done by Christian zealots. A Christian burning a Koran isn’t art; it’s an act of religious warfare.
Muslims are hard-wired for religious warfare. Islam was spread at the edge of a sword from the very beginning, and it is nearly impossible for all but the most secular Muslims to see the Koran burning as anything but a direct attack on their religion by another.
Either Islam is going to change to get along with the modern world, or the modern world is going to change to get along with Islam. So far we have tried the latter course, but this policy of tolerance has failed. All it has done is appear as weakness, and if it continues we will have to reconcile ourselves to nearly constant warfare with Islam or become Muslims ourselves.
Artists could play a role in helping Islam modernize. If enough of them stood up to the faith and provoked it – by encasing a Koran in a plastic box full of urine perhaps, Muslims would realize that their faith is strong enough to endure such acts – and they wouldn’t need to protect their religion by jumping up and down everytime someone looks at their faith cross-eyed.
Unfortunately, few artists around these days have those kind of guts, and I have my doubts that Muslims are mature enough to realize that Islam doesn’t need their protection from blaspheming non-believers.
UPDATE: As if there was any doubt that Islam is fighting a religious war (as if banning Bibles and beheading those who convert to other religions wasn’t enough).