In 2003 the Dutch newspaper Jyllands-Posten rejected cartoons that satirized Christ, declining to print them on the grounds they would “provoke an outcry.” Two years later the same paper published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, knowing full well the caricatures would be seen as a provocation since Islam forbids visual representations of Allah and Mohammed. I’ve been loath to write about this controversy, not wanting to become embroiled in an endless squabble about religion, but there are lessons to be learned from this affair - and despite being obvious they’re being lost in the bigger picture. For the longest time we’ve heard that art is without power, consequence, or import. We’ve been told that art “changes nothing” and that its ability to transform society is next to nil. The postmodernist installation artist Christo expressed this belief most succinctly when he said that “all works of art are good for nothing.” If we’ve learned anything at all from this miserable situation it’s that art does matter and images do have a tremendous impact upon society.
The Washington Post ran an interesting article on the history of depicting the prophet Mohammed in the sacred art of Islam. The story reveals that some early drawings do indeed exist, but went on to describe how these modest images were the property of elites, who kept them bound as expensive manuscripts that would never be seen by the masses - who were likely to be upset by such artworks. A few Western museums have drawings and manuscripts like these in their collections, but for reasons of cultural sensitivity, never place the artworks on display.
Concerning the cartoon uproar, Eric Mink, writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, makes the point, “I can’t decide who’s dumber: those who believe that beating people and torching buildings honor Mohammed and his teachings or those who believe there’s something honorable about insulting someone else’s religion simply to prove that they can.” Gary Younge, writing for The Nation, put it this way, “There is nothing courageous about using your freedom of speech to ridicule the beliefs of one of the weakest sections of your society. But Rose (Flemming Rose - culture editor for Jyllands-Posten) and others like him clearly believe Muslims, by virtue of their religion, exist on the wrong side of the line.”
The aforementioned Washington Post story ends with an acknowledgment that “images have power,” and that although “museums often seem far distant from the news, this isn’t always so.” I would go even further by saying that any artist who maintains a distance from real world events is living with a dangerous and artificial construct. Today’s artists must wake up to the fact that they do indeed have influence - and that authority can be used to unite or divide humanity.