Ben Lowry: Artwork controversy shows contrasting Christian and Muslim responses to insult

The controversial artwork entitled 'Piss Christ'
The controversial artwork entitled 'Piss Christ'

There has been a minor controversy this week over a piece of artwork that is on display in Londonderry.

I remember the original controversy surrounding the same image when it was unveiled in the United States in 1987, when I was 15 and getting increasingly interested in events in America.

The photograph by Andres Serrano is entitled ‘Piss Christ’, and is pictured above. Even the name is crude and upsetting to many people, let alone the content, which shows a crucifix bathed in urine.

As a letter in today’s News Letter demonstrates, and as other letters to this newspaper have shown this week, many Christians consider it to be vile, blasphemous, obscene, and so on.

The reaction in America when it was unveiled almost 30 years ago was similarly forceful, or probably more so. People on both sides of the Atlantic are less shockable now.

Approving critics said the photograph had important things to say about the cheapening of religion or about the sacred and the profane.

Sister Wendy Beckett,the nun who became famous as a TV art critic, said she did not regard the work as blasphemous but a commentary on “what we have done to Christ”.

For me the most notable aspect of the current controversy is how mild the Christian reaction is compared to how some Muslims would react to an equivalent situation.

Indeed, if such an image was released of the Prophet Mohammed in urine, there would certainly be international violence, and probably murders – maybe many.

The Danish cartoons and the Charlie Hebdo satires were much less provocative. Yet people such as Jack Straw and Mary McAleese condemned the publication of the Danish cartoons.

I thought the opposite. Once the Islamic response became violent, I believed that all western world newspapers should have published the cartoons in an act of solidarity. The message to the fanatics would have been: you will have to attack the entire corps of western media outlets if you want to stop this sort of freedom of expression.

I am not expressing a view on the merit of ‘Piss Christ’ but on the value of free speech.

Contrasting attitudes to that became starkly apparent in the 1980s, in the outraged but civilised Christian reaction to the Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation of Christ and the violent, terrifying Islamic reaction to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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