People have asked me my opinion of the Rev. Terry Jones’ threat to burn the Quran this past weekend. Personally I think the best thing to do with this story is to not give this insignificant media-hound with all of fifty parishioners a voice. But it’s way too late for that now. So, of course I find the action in poor taste – I would never burn any religion’s sacred parchment. That is just wrong and disrespectful to millions trying to practice their faith and go about their daily lives in peace.
But (there’s always a “but” in such testy cases), when I juxtapose this one twisted symbolic gesture against the disregard–and I would argue contempt–being shown by so-called “moderate” practitioners of Islam who insist on building their mosque almost on top of the ashes of 9/11 victims against the wishes of so many Americans, I can understand the frustration that creates a Jones and his ilk. And the fact is, as Mayor Bloomberg offered up, if there is freedom of speech for the fanatical Muslim goose, it must also be for the crackpot Christian gander.
Still, as a matter of common decency I hope this guy tables forever his plans–and there are no copycats. And as a practical matter, I agree with General Petraeus in that the last thing our men and women in the field need is another faux propaganda storm putting them in greater harm’s way… although I do believe that fear of retaliation should not be a reason to quell free speech but rather to fight harder for it. (Easy for me to say as I am not humping a pack in Kandahar I freely admit!)
However, something did occur to me this weekend. Jones is going about this all wrong. If he really wants to burn the Islamic holy book, I know a way that he could do it while at the same time have every left wing pundit and mainstream news outlet not decry his act but rather defend and even celebrate it. He should burn it on the steps of the Museum Of Modern Art up here in New York. And instead of calling it a protest, or a statement, he should just call his Quran torching “art.” In the interest of consistency, artistic integrity and fairness, maybe he can even do it in the building, right on the same spot where in 1989 the infamous “Piss Christ” photo was proudly exhibited. You remember that? The piece of “art” that showed a crucifix submerged in urine? As artist Andres Serrano explained his artistic vision in an open letter to the National Endowment for the Arts:
The photograph, and the title itself, are ambiguously provocative but certainly not blasphemous. Over the years, I have addressed religion regularly in my art. My Catholic upbringing informs this work which helps me to redefine and personalize my relationship with God. My use of such bodily fluids as blood and urine in this context is parallel to Catholicism’s obsession with “the body and blood of Christ.” It is precisely in the exploration and juxtaposition of the symbols from which Christianity draws it strength.
That seemed just fine and dandy to the free speech warriors and beret crowd back in the day. In fact, Serrano’s inspired piece won the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s “Awards in the Visual Arts” competition which was partially funded by that same NEA–your tax dollars at work. So then I submit Jones should just take Serrano’s explanation, re-arrange a few words, and present his action to the creative world this way:
The act of immolation itself is ambiguously provocative but certainly not blasphemous. Over the years, I have addressed religion regularly in my sermons. My religious upbringing informs this act which helps me to redefine and personalize my relationship with Allah. My use of such symbolic tools as gasoline and match in this context is parallel to Islam’s obsession with pyrotechnics and flaming destruction. It is precisely in the exploration and juxtaposition of the symbols from which Islam draws it strength.
There see? All better now. Sounds like we have ourselves next year’s NEA art contest winner too! At least Jones will have transformed himself from a provocateur into an “artist.” Someone all far lefties can gravitate towards. (Hey and as a bonus, maybe Larry David can pee on it to extinguish the flames like he did a picture of Jesus on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. What a hoot!)
Of course, if MOMA declines the new exhibit, Jones could try the Brooklyn Museum which in 1999 exhibited Chris Olifi’s “artwork” that featured the Virgin Mary splattered in elephant dung. Back then the New York Times rushed to the defense of the display:
To be sure, many citizens of conscience find parts of the Brooklyn exhibition repugnant, and it is understandable that many Roman Catholics would find Chris Ofili’s image of the Virgin Mary offensive.” But, it continued, “A museum is obliged to challenge the public as well as to placate it, or else the museum becomes a chamber of attractive ghosts, an institution completely disconnected from art in our time.
As an artist myself I grudgingly see the Times’ point here. So then it would appear, given this take on what constitutes “art,” that what we have in the Quran burning is but the latest chapter in the long, chaotic, glorious march of artistic freedom in defiance of out-moded conventions, intellectually stifling religious dogma, and societal mores. Oh my! What’s a committed lefty to do? One can almost hear the whining robotic cries of “Error…Error…Error….Does not compute!” from the First Amendment crowd who until now so craftily hid behind the cover of the Constitution so they could insult the faithful while calling their crass provocations “art” with a straight face.
But, why the confusion? Gee, I thought these were the guys who love to wax poetic about the joys of free speech, piously affirming to each other over their third latte: “We may not agree with what he says, but will defend to the death his right to say it!” So clearly then, by donning a black turtle-neck and moving the Quran burning venue from the parking lot of an obscure Florida church to the center of the modern art world, the Reverend Jones can count on some powerful liberal allies to shield him from the inevitable “fatwa” which the courageous Ofili and Serrano need never fear from Christians who have long ago learned to take sucker punches to their faith from the intelligentsia in stride.
Don’t hold your breath. These guys only have the mettle to push their “craft” in the faces of those who will not slit their throats. It all depends on whose profit is being gored, and, more to the point, the propensity for violence of those offended. Christians, by the very nature of following Christ’s admonition to embrace thine enemy will always be easy prey for assault and insult… be it in the name of Muhammad or modern “art.”
I reject Jones because he is showing the very contempt for another religion that repels me when I see it heaped upon my own in the name of self-promotion and the loosest possible definitions of “free speech” or “art.” The liberals will reject him too, but for a much baser reason… their double-standard is rooted in staying out of harm’s way. Period. The rest is just self-righteous smoke. It certainly prompts one to ask in this latest episode, who are the real cowards in this whole ludicrous non-event?