Negotiating the Sacred II

Negotiating the Sacred II: Blasphemy and Sacrilege in the Arts

Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: ANU Press
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    Negotiating the Sacred II
    Book Description:

    Blasphemy and other forms of blatant disrespect to religious beliefs have the capacity to create significant civil and even international unrest. Consequently, the sacrosanctity of religious dogmas and beliefs, stringent laws of repression and codes of moral and ethical propriety have compelled artists to live and create with occupational hazards like uncertain audience response, self-censorship and accusations of deliberate misinterpretation of cultural production looming over their heads. Yet, in recent years, issues surrounding the rights of minority cultures to recognition and respect have raised new questions about the contemporariness of the construct of blasphemy and sacrilege. Controversies over the aesthetic representation of the sacred, the exhibition of the sacred as art, and the public display of sacrilegious or blasphemous works have given rise to heated debates and have invited us to reflect on binaries like artistic and religious sensibilities, tolerance and philistinism, the sacred and the profane, deification and vilification. Endeavouring to move beyond 'simplistic' points about the rights to freedom of expression and sacrosanctity, this collection explores how differences between conceptions of the sacred can be negotiated. It recognises that blasphemy may be justified as a form of political criticism, as well as a sincere expression of spirituality. But it also recognises that within a pluralistic society, blasphemy in the arts can do an enormous amount of harm, as it may also impair relations within and between societies. This collection evolved out a two-day conference called 'Negotiating the Sacred: Blasphemy and Sacrilege in the Arts' held at the Centre for Cross Cultural Research at The Australian National University in November 2005. This is the second volume in a series of five conferences and edited collections on the theme 'Negotiating the Sacred'. The first conference, 'Negotiating the Sacred: Blasphemy and Sacrilege in a Multicultural Society' was held at The Australian National University's Centre for Cross-Cultural Research in 2004, and published as an edited collection by ANU E Press in 2006. Other conferences in the series have included Religion, Medicine and the Body (ANU, 2006), Tolerance, Education and the Curriculum (ANU, 2007), and Governing the Family (Monash University, 2008). Together, the series represents a major contribution to ongoing debates on the political demands arising from religious pluralism in multicultural societies.

    eISBN: 978-1-921536-27-4
    Subjects: Sociology, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Contributors
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction: Lines in the Sand
    (pp. 1-8)
    Elizabeth Burns Coleman and Maria Suzette Fernandes-Dias

    The sacrosanctity of religious dogmas and beliefs, stringent laws of repression and codes of moral and ethical propriety have compelled artists to live and create with occupational hazards like uncertain audience response, and accusations of deliberate misinterpretation of cultural production looming over their heads. In extreme cases, the battle between artistic iconoclasm and societal repression has forced creators to put their life on the line in defence of liberal self-expression.

    Perhaps we should not write in the past tense. On 2 November 2004, Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh paid with his life for his supposedly offensive depiction of Islam...

  6. Section I: Understanding Blasphemy and Sacrilege
    • [Section I: Introduction]
      (pp. 9-10)

      The first four essays in this collection express a sense of bewilderment about accusations of blasphemy and sacrilege, and seek to understand the motivations behind them. In our first essay, historian David Nash suggests that in contemporary Western societies, blasphemy ʹis back with a vengeanceʹ and ʹoffers to trail blaze a path for religion and religious responses to become the cornerstone of the new politics of cultural identityʹ. However, he argues, we have no adequate theoretical models for understanding the place of religion in our societies. The rise of accusations of blasphemy, he suggests, is proof of the falsity of...

    • 1 Blasphemy and sacrilege: A challenge to secularisation and theories of the modern?
      (pp. 11-22)
      David Nash

      In the penultimate episode of the recent beloved BBC science fiction series Dr Who the massed ranks of the Daleks made a long awaited re-appearance. In doing so they demonstrated a developed conception of amoral violence and the justification for it in a conception of blasphemy. When confronted by the possibility that they might contain human DNA, the Daleks considered this to be a suggestion that was potentially blasphemous. This is arguably a quite significant cultural moment for the confidence that underpinned our modernist vision of civilisation. The Daleks after all were created in the early 1960s, arguably the highpoint...

    • 2 ʹThe devilʹs centres of operationʹ: English theatre and the charge of blasphemy, 1698-1708
      (pp. 23-36)
      David Manning

      The dominant notion of blasphemy in Britain today is built upon a perception of what is offensive to the Christian religion. Derived from common law and fashioned by the dynamics of public opinion, this view has been employed to powerful effect in the Gay News trial of 1977 and, most recently, in charges against the BBC broadcast of Jerry Springer the Opera in 2005.² It would appear that the exclusively religious conception of blasphemy as a sin against God, punishable by God or His intermediaries, has been displaced by a more secular, politicised view which focuses on the relationship between...

    • 3 Madonna and piano accordion: Disrupting the order of the world
      (pp. 37-54)
      Elizabeth Burns Coleman

      In 1997, a poster depicting an icon of the Madonna playing a piano accordion was produced to promote the Adelaide Arts Festival. The Madonna was depicted enthroned against a background that was recognisably of the park that extends from the Adelaide Arts Centre to the Torrens River, with one of the major cathedrals in the background. She was surrounded by outlines of gods from other religions, including Buddha, Ganesh, and an Aboriginal Wandjina. The style of presentation was recognisably Middle Eastern, a point emphasised by the gold mosaic frame, and the ʹGreekʹ lettering of the announcement of the event and...

    • 4 Materialising the sacred
      (pp. 55-66)
      Dianne McGowan

      This chapter illustrates the shifting meanings of sacred/religious objects, in particular the recent phenomenon of sacred/religious into fine art commodities. This process, however, may lead to concerns about the new ways in which religious objects are valued. It is often suggested that this process of secularisation and commodification is a failure to respect the people who created it, and in some way presents a harm to the object itself.

      According to the Oxford definition, the sacred belongs to the consecrated and the religious; to dedicated objects or purpose; and, objects or persons affiliated with a deity/god or venerated as holy.¹...

  7. Section II: Motivations for Artistic Blasphemy
    • [Section II: Introduction]
      (pp. 67-68)

      The second section explores uses of ʹblasphemyʹ against secular and religious sacred symbols as forms of political protest, or as a force of liberation. ʹThe sacredʹ may be understood as a hierarchical structure of symbols that constrain thought through maintaining stereotypes and social systems of values. In this sense, what is sacred may be understood in both secular or religious terms, and its transgression as a means of undermining this hierarchy. This liberating force is widely accepted by theorists. Herbert Marcuse hails art as a liberating experience of ʹaesthetic sublimationʹ that ʹremoves the audience from immediate engagement with realityʹ and...

    • 5 Blasphemy and sacrilege in the novel of magic realism: Grass, Bulgakov, and Rushdie
      (pp. 69-80)
      Peter Arnds

      Fortunately, at times in which the right to freedom of speech is threatened, there are artists who remind us of that right. In the face of those telling us that we ought to stand united behind our political leaders and who want to blacklist unpatriotic academics, in the face of these, we ought to brandish certain books. Books full of blasphemy and sacrilege reminding us that at times of political and religious monologism, we need to hear conflicting voices in order to preserve the spirit of liberalism. Mikhail Bakhtinʹs theory of heteroglossia still enforces this message. According to the Russian...

    • 6 Les fees ont soif: Feminist, iconoclastic or blasphemous?
      (pp. 81-92)
      Maria-Suzette Fernandes-Dias

      In his 1993 book, Blasphemy, David Lawton is of the opinion that blasphemy in the arts is healthy because it ʹoften registers the irruption of a new reading communityʹ¹ and marks such a communityʹs rite of passage. Womenʹs writing has been an important site of blasphemy in the twentieth century. Blasphemy has provided a formerly marginalised group with a medium though which to assert its rights against an existing social and cultural order that abhors transformation and resists it. It does this by wielding the power of religious constructs about the sacrosanctity of dogmas and beliefs, the naturalness of civil...

    • 7 The body of Christ: Blasphemy as a necessary transgression?
      (pp. 93-102)
      Carolyn DʹCruz and Glenn DʹCruz

      This chapter was originally prefaced with an audio-visual presentation showing key scenes from Martin Scorseseʹs film, The Last Temptation of Christ, cut to the folk hymn, ʹGo Tell Everyoneʹ, which is reproduced below. The video segued into a short duologue, which dramatised the ambiguity inherent in Godʹs call. The presentation concluded with the same hymn accompanied by images of the poor, the marginalised and the powerful.

      Godʹs spirit is in my heart

      He has called me and set me apart

      This is what I have to do, what I have to do

      He sent me to give the good news...

  8. Section III: Reinterpreting Freedom of Expression
    • [Section III: Introduction]
      (pp. 103-104)

      Multiculturalism and religious pluralism pose a particular set of political issues for a liberal society. On one interpretation, all that freedom of religion requires is freedom from persecution. Yet, a stronger requirement suggested for many is that a liberal society should make allowances for the religious group. For instance, it has been argued that allowances may be made to enable the member of a religious group to participate in religious observance, and to maintain their integrity in meeting religious duties. An even stronger claim is that tolerance in a society with religious pluralism requires more than mere exemptions to laws,...

    • 8 The monologue of liberalism and its imagination of the sacred in minority cultures
      (pp. 105-126)
      Jasdev Singh Rai

      The particular evolution of Western civilisation has forced upon its artists a responsibility that becomes invalid and obscurantist when transposed upon the cultures of Indic civilisation. The fundamental distinctions between the two civilisations offer different challenges to the artist. But Western hegemony in the arts often clouds critical thinking and encourages the generalisation of inherited western experiences and concepts as universal and transcendent rather than as particular to its own cultural evolution. The arts and the theatre have enjoyed an uninterrupted progress in Indic civilisations for over 3000 years. In that period, subjects such as freedom of expression, boundaries, and...

    • 9 Blasphemy in a pluralistic society
      (pp. 127-144)
      Jeremy Shearmur

      In this chapter, I will tentatively address a difficult issue: what we should make of blasphemy today, in a society like Australia?¹ My discussion falls into three parts: considering blasphemy under the headings of truth, ridicule, and play. I also discuss some different dimensions to the character of the offence. I conclude with a discussion of some particular problems about blasphemy posed by the fact that we are living in a pluralistic society, in the face of which I make some specific — but inadequate — recommendations. I am happy to call them ʹinadequateʹ just because my aim, at the...

  9. Section IV: Self-expression and Restriction
    • [Section IV: Introduction]
      (pp. 145-146)

      The argument in this section considers artistic creation and self-expression achieved within restriction. It is hard to see that the value claimed for artistic expression, of showing the world anew, or of expressing the common concerns of humanity, requires that art should be unrestricted. While it might be assumed that artists must work without restriction in order to express themselves, ʹfettersʹ do not necessarily constrain what may be represented. For instance, films that respect modesty may also express sexual longing and consummation. Restriction is a condition for creativity, and is a framework within which creativity is recognised.

      As artist and...

    • 10 Blasphemy and the art of the political and devotional
      (pp. 147-160)
      Christopher Braddock

      A breakdown in the unity of state and church has altered the context in which blasphemy might be understood. Rather than viewing blasphemous libel as intrinsically linked through the Ecclesiastical courts within the unity of State and Church, the emphasis has shifted to the individual in society whose freedom of artistic expression is constrained instead by the secular laws of defamation and obscenity. In this light, artists such as Andres Serrano and Tania Kovats embrace a freedom to use dramatic and visually confronting binary oppositions in their works of art.¹ Andres Serrano juxtaposed the crucifix with urine, and Tania Kovats,...

    • 11 Negotiating the sacred body in Iranian cinema(s): National, physical and cinematic embodiment in Majid Majidiʹs Baran (2002)
      (pp. 161-172)
      Michelle Langford

      In the post-revolutionary period, Iranian cinema has been subject to strict Islamic censorship regulations that dictate what can and cannot be show on screen, particularly in terms of the representation of women and romantic relationships between men and women. The rules relating to the representation of women mirror, in a highly exaggerated way, the codes of modesty relating to women in society more generally. Censorship functions to ensure that both onscreen bodies and the bodies of viewers in the audience remain modest. These bodies must be protected from un-Islamic, profane, blasphemous or sacrilegious utterances, acts and gestures: primarily those related...

    • 12 Silence as a way of knowing in Yolngu Indigenous Australian storytelling
      (pp. 173-190)
      Caroline Josephs

      I am, in this chapter, approaching three aspects of silence as a way of knowing — in relation to Yolngu story and storytelling — through one particular Yolngu story which I cannot tell. What I can tell — is why I cannot tell the story, and how pursuing the question of whether I could tell the story, and in what way, led me on a long intriguing journey.

      The three aspects I want to deal with, in relation to one Yolngu story, are:

      1. protocols of being silent around storytelling — or not telling;

      2. inside/outside knowledge, and touching into the silence...

  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 191-204)
  11. Index
    (pp. 205-210)