United Arab Emirates
Defend holy sensibilities
Modern art is likely to gain from contradiction, and even, on occasion, from censorship
By The Art Newspaper. Comment, Issue 224, May 2011
Published online: 29 April 2011
One never ceases to be amazed at the speed with which Islamic societies are allowing themselves to be modernised. A process that took Europe four painful centuries is being crammed into a few short decades, and despite inevitable sparks and cries of protest, the process appears strikingly successful. At first glance, the most astonishing case of this is supplied by the states of the Gulf, where a strictly medieval culture prevailed into living memory, but where art and architecture today reflect a local taste that seems decidedly postmodern.
What is intriguing about the recent furore in Sharjah is not that a work of art was banned and the biennial director sacked, but that it should have been there at all. Blasphemy is intrinsic to modern art, which is naturally hostile to tradition, to the sacred, and to the claim that a benign order underlies the apparent randomness of human experience. The work by Mustapha Benfodil, which provoked the sudden reversion to older patterns of discernment and exclusion, included phrases which, being in Arabic, attracted local attention for their irreligious content. But the ethos of his work, like almost all avant-garde art, is rooted in the modern rejection of the sacred, which it replaces with the expression, often enigmatic, of the inner life of the artist. Individualism can only make headway by eroding the collective and the transcendent.
It would be easy to deride the good burghers of Sharjah for failing to spot this most salient element of the modern. Expatriates often claim that Gulf Arabs like modern art because of the prestige of its association with the west, not because they understand it. This is a local version of the more widespread view that most consumers of contemporary art are attracted only by its mystique. (Asked how many people actually like modern art, Marcel Duchamp famously replied: “Oh, maybe ten in New York, and one or two in New Jersey.”)
In fact, Emiratis are not this naïve. Many find modern art interesting because it is a window onto the soul of the west, with which they have to engage. Its indifference to recognisable canons of beauty and truth, and its typical pessimism about society, are taken to be important lessons. Fundamentalists, in particular, appreciate the new galleries in the region for their sermonising potential; as an Afghan once told me, nothing would serve the Islamist cause better than a major Gilbert & George retrospective in Kandahar.
The same religionists are laughing at liberal attempts to explain why blasphemies against Islam are a valid expression of artistic licence, while certain western legal and moral taboos may be acceptably internalised by curators and by legislation. Yet even in Sweden, just two years ago, the Linköping municipality banned posters for a rock festival that showed Satan excreting on a cross. And in Denmark, the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which had defended its right to publish cartoons of the Prophet, retreated from its stated intention to publish a cartoon that lampooned the Holocaust.
Muslims are not slow to note these contradictions, and to observe with amusement the verbal acrobatics of western moralisers who seek to justify them.
Beyond the politics, however, lies the stubborn fact that modern art, to be itself, needs to be free to outrage and subvert, not only implicitly, but explicitly. Claims about God and society must be subjected not only to irony, but to lampoon, wherever the artist’s will dictates it. This is the more significant problem for the Emirates.
A sophisticated appreciation of contemporary art as an icon of the fragmented secular soul of the west, and hence as a signpost that points Muslims back to the mosque, will draw the line at religious offence.
The theology is clear enough. The omnipotent God of the Koran does not need defending. The Prophet, too, has been beyond the reach of human injury for 14 centuries. Yet just as more secular vulnerabilities deserve protection, in the form of laws against libel, slander, racism, or Holocaust denial, so too do the no less tender sensibilities of religious believers. To assume that the infringement of secular honour is of moral and legal concern, while religionists must be fair game, is arbitrary and unjust. It also neglects the uncomfortable fact that the greatest human tenderness is often connected to the sacred.
Surely the celebration of a world without intrinsic meaning or destiny, which is what contemporary art supplies, is enriched when challenged by those who insist on a meaning, and hold that irreducible damage to human dignity is caused by imposing the rage of alienated normlessness upon those whose good fortune it is to see truth in beauty, and holiness in human lives.
Modern art cannot become religious; but like any other cultural production it is likely to gain from contradiction, and even, on occasion, from censorship and exclusion, if only by being made to think about the values that it came to erase.
The writer is Sheikh Zayed lecturer in Islamic studies, the faculty of divinity, theology and religious studies, University of Cambridge
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