Art and Religious Intolerance

The organisers of a festival in Skopje destroyed a work of art already on display, claiming that it hurt religious feelings.

This article originally appeared on 28 May in BalkanInsight

A festival of creative industries opening today in Skopje has started with a bang. The organisers of the festival decided to remove a billboard i.e. tear into bits a work of art that already was on display as part of an exhibition, without informing the artist group involved, because it hurt religious feelings.

Of course the public is left in the dark about the owner of those hurt feelings, as it is about the author of this catastrophic decision. What was the incriminated piece of art?

The billboard depicted a mock advert for a cleaning product, which was supposed to clean “even the most inaccessible surfaces”. The background shows a fresco from a Skopje church that featured a “miraculous” self-cleaning icon not long ago.

It seems that the Balkans are inhabited by extremely sensitive people, whose feelings get hurt at almost every moment. If one criticises Greece for having a lax attitude towards tax collection, one hurts all Greeks’ feelings. If one decides not to participate at the inauguration of someone like Tomislav Nikolic as President of Serbia, the entire Serbian nation’s feelings are hurt.

There is no end to stories of nations’ feelings being trampled upon. Except it is always people who claim to represent the entire nation who invoke this pseudo-moral instrument. And it is always their own personal interest they have in mind. But it seems people don’t mind being abused, otherwise they would react.

A specific category of collective feelings getting hurt, whenever political players need them to be, are religious feelings. Because they felt offended, the Taleban blew up a piece of world heritage in the shape of the Bamiyan Buddha statues and drove an entire country back into the Stone Age.

Because of the hurt feelings of Islamists, an ever increasing number of people are restricted in their freedom of movement, including artists and journalists. If they survive, that is. Theo van Gogh was executed in 2004 because of hurt religious feelings.

Let us turn things around and imagine a world without religious feelings being hurt. Martin Luther decides not to nail his theses at the entrance of the church in Wittenberg and start the end of the Middle Ages. Martin Luther King decides not to lead the protests of black Americans out of consideration for the religious feelings of the Ku Klux Klan. Women decide not to fight abuse and enslavement in order not to hurt their fathers’, husbands’ and brothers’ religiously motivated feelings of supremacy. Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela stick to their jobs in order not to hurt the religious feelings of White South Africans.

Copernicus, Galileo and Bruno don’t even start to think about the universe out of respect for the religious feelings of the Catholic clergy. Isaac Newton eats his apple and goes back to sleep out of consideration for the religious feelings of his peers.

And last but not least, Charles Darwin burns his own theses about the origins of species out of consideration for religious feelings. When religious tolerance is confused with obedience, the result is stagnation and ultimately intolerance. The result is the opposite of self-reflection, the one and only engine of progress.

Now let us look at artists and respect for religious feelings. Had they been obedient, the Renaissance would have never happened. Had they been obedient, some of the world’s greatest works of art would have never been created.

It is the role of an artist to question and to provoke. And it is the role of society to take those questions and deal with them. It ultimately is the achievement of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment that democratic values have been enshrined in the foundations of our societies.

Freedom of expression, including artistic expression, belongs to these values. It is a basic prerogative for the functioning of a democracy. Seen the other way – once a society goes down the path of endangering this freedom, democracy is at stake.

There is the other way, too. The Nazis burned books and banned artists, declaring them degenerate. Zhdanov introduced Socialist Realism as the one and only dogma for art, while the Soviet regime treated deviation from it as treason.

Of course, there is always that option. But does a society like Macedonia’s want to go down that path? Do artists have to start to self-censure themselves because someone might take offense? What this ultimately produces is complacent, decorative and dull craftwork so much loved by the petit-bourgeois and by the palankanians [i.e. inhabitants of provincial narrow minded communities].

If artists cannot create and exhibit free from social and political pressure, they will turn against this pressure. There is no single example of a regime that managed to silence artists. Ai Wei Wei and Liu Xiaobo are recent prominent examples of that failure. But the list is endless. It is not possible and it is stupid, because it will ultimately turn against the censors.

I wonder if anyone in the organisation of the festival, which is held under the auspices of the City of Skopje, will have the guts to get up and say that the work of art that they destroyed was a manifestation of deviation, that it was degenerate. Of course they won’t. It is so much easier to hide behind someone else’s religious back.

Ultimately these kinds of actions need not be taken with the same degree of seriousness that the protagonists display. Pitiful is the right word for them. They demand to be made fun of, to be subjected to the purifying process of satire. They are unworthy of reaction on an intellectual level. Artists have their own means and will react. A small but active independent scene has arisen in Macedonia and I am confident that they have answers to this act of cultural vandalism.

Of course, the destruction of intellectual property is another issue. But that is up to lawyers to deal with.

In one of Tom Robbins’ novels, a parrot is trained to say a single sentence that I would like to throw into the face of any kind of self-styled religious zealots or people acting on their behalf: “People of zee wurl, relax!”

Vision? Go pray…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: