The Art of Taking Offence

Just as I’m trying to wind down from the year’s art controversies, along comes another art-and-Jesus blowup.

Crucifixes in art have not had a good time of late: in the US , there was the December debacle surrounding the Smithsonian’s panicky decision to pull a clip of David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video A Fire in My Belly from the National Portrait Gallery’s gay and lesbian show, Hide/Seek, under pressure from Christian campaign groups and rightwing congressmen. Wojnarowicz’s film includes sequences in which ants are seen crawling over a effigy of the crucified Christ. And on the other side of the Atlantic, at the Collection Lambert, in Avignon, Catholic protesters vandalised Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph Immersion (Piss Christ), depicting another crucified Christ glowing and floating in a vivid orange void, reputedly consisting of Serrano’s own (clearly very rich) pee.

It doesn’t take a genius to guess that these works might offend those of a Christian sensibility; Serrano’s infamous image has, after all, been upsetting people ever since 1989, when it became the focus for rightwing ire in the US, a symbol of the ‘culture wars’ of the Reagan era. But it has also been shown everywhere in the intervening years, while the Wojnarowicz film is available on YouTube. So the Christian-led protests against these works seem like an increasingly insistent replay of the same liberal–conservative faceoff, leading liberal commentators to worry that these actions signal a dangerous resurgence of neoconservative, religious fundamentalist sentiment.

Although it’s true that religious extremists seem to get just as upset as they used to, there’s something a bit exaggerated about these increasingly repetitive and formulaic eruptions of highly public offence-taking by minorities (or even majorities, for that matter) – which suggests that being offended has become a kind of cultural form in its own right. Because if one looks around, one realises that this culture of upset isn’t particular to Christian fundamentalists. Everyone’s at it. Cultural liberals are really good at getting offended, too – and that’s because it was liberals who bred this new culture of no offence, where the principle of protecting minorities has turned into an extreme aversion to hurting anyone’s feelings, and in which every group, minority or majority, now seeks to assert its identity by fuming with outrage the moment anyone else ‘disrespects’ its members, demanding that artworks, images or words be banned in order to spare their fragile emotional sensibilities.

It’s this climate of hypersensitivity that gives institutions that present controversial works a nervous breakdown the moment they think one or another minority might take offence, and the Smithsonian’s gutless retreat isn’t the first: back in 2005, for example, Tate Britain, to its lasting shame, decided to remove from a retrospective of John Latham’s work a sculpture entitled God Is Great #2 (1991), because it might have offended Muslims. That’s might have offended Muslims, by the way: that no Muslim got the opportunity to be offended by the work, because it was never shown, shows up the wacky, paranoid logic of the now-dominant cultural etiquette of no-offence.

But while liberals like to pretend that they stand up for free speech, they are quick to censor anyone who comes out with opinions they dislike. Yet being offended by other people’s political opinions or artworks doesn’t entitle you to demand that they be silenced. It entitles you to criticise them, argue with them and convince others that they’re wrong. And art institutions that have a duty to represent the art of the past faithfully cannot shit their pants just because some faction or other chooses to get upset. In its pathetic ‘Q&A’ response to the Hide/Seek controversy, the Smithsonian declared that ‘many people… were upset about segments of the four-minute video’ and that ‘Smithsonian officials and museum leaders aresensitive to public perceptions of the Institution’s exhibitions’. A better response would have simply been: ‘Tough. Deal with it.’ Meanwhile, liberals need to stop pretending that only they occupy the moral highground. Like a self-righteous martyr to the cause, Eric Mezil, curator at the Collection Lambert, declared that the vandalised Serrano would remain in the exhibition, to show people ‘what barbarians can do’. Still, this was the same Mezil who, in 2007, shrilly declared that a Cy Twombly painting had been ‘raped’ by a woman who had placed a lipstick kiss on its surface. Now surely there’s a feminist somewhere who takes offence at that…

First published in ArtReview issue 51, May 2011