Thursday, November 8, 2012

My encounter with a religious extremist

Do not scroll to the bottom of this post if you are offended by sexualized religious imagery.

Via Fox News

A friend posted an image on his Google+ account. It is a provocative image, currently making the viral rounds, of an artwork that took a religious symbol and transformed it into a realistic portrayal of human genitalia.

Immediately, and predictably, there were complaints from  his circles. Here are some excerpts from one unhappy G+er in particular — a person from a country, language and culture very different from mine (as I was soon to find out):

"What is the intention of this? Bring attention?  Pretend to be artistry? Some symbols should be respected, believing or not...  Some world symbols should be treated with great care."
Some other people in the thread, myself included, talked about the need for free speech in art, and how a provocative work can inspire new thoughts and conversations about old ideas. Plus, the link between ancient fertility symbols and later religious imagery is an old and learned idea.

He kept going:
"Why do something that will offend a lot of people? When we put down and idea or principle we should put other in its place. Not all are evolved, not all like this kind of thing.
But believe or not, this symbol is the comfort of millions of people. In the serious and desperate moments of our life we can pray for [...] help. And it works with millions! So, this is a matter of ethics too. Respect others first. What kind of conclusion do you think that who made this want to provoke on the viewer? There are thousands of other ways to bring attention much better and safer [bolding mine] than this one."
He claimed not to be religious, but went on to explain why religion needed special protection from criticism:

"The need of God do not originate from supernatural sources but from our inner, our fragility in life. The human race have not been so much desperate as now. Drugs, pornography, lack of values, egotism. All this are a "testimony" of our superiority... Com on give a look at a newspaper and see TV news for just a few minutes and think." 
"There is no reason to put down religious symbols. No matter if we believe or not, they help millions!" 
"You are really offending millions that believe on this. Put this on your house wall but you have not the right of publish this. You are offending!  [...another insistence he is not religious...] You should remove this." 
"One wrong thing do not justify the other. We can not compare all the wrong things in the world because we would be here forever. ---- The fact is that this image offend a lot of people. ----- This is a public place and it exist for sharing. It gives no one the right to offend others. Every one have the right of keep his concepts PRIVATELY."
Most of the original thread had dropped out at this point, including the original poster. I gave another explanation of what I saw as the artist's message, and gave a link to similar portrayals throughout history, with the philosophical question of who gets to decide what is "sacred".

He started to get internet angry:

"What you consider sacred or not do not concern here as long as you keep it private. This is a public place! YOU want to impose an image on a public place. YOU are defending something that you knows is wrong. This is no place for it." 
I tried to end the conflict peacefully but firmly, concluding, "I don't know you, but I do know I that I'm glad you are not in charge of censoring art and speech where I live."

That's when he threatened me:

"Yes you do not know me. I am not a censor and yes, you are lucky I am not where you live. You are the aggressive person here not me. I am just defending a symbol so caring by millions. Defending from an idiont tentative of make ridiculous one of the best examples of a decent human being. If you have or not faith I do not give a shit. But this image DO HARMS."

I should point out, again, that all of my comments were simply academic and artistic rationales for why the artwork was useful to public discourse about religion and philosophy. The only reason I have not quoted myself in full is because my descriptions of the artwork would spoil the reveal. And you're dying to know what the image was, aren't you?

Be forewarned that this image can and will offend the pious. I chose not to share it openly on my professional and family social networks because it is polarizing, and without proper explanation it could make me seem as if I were either prejudiced against a certain religious group, or simply a great big pervert.

Still want to see it? Oh, come on... you know where this is going by now.

Okay, here:

The artist is unknown to me, as is the artist's statement. But it's a rather graphic take on the iconography of the mandorla ("almond" in Italian), a traditional way of portraying Mary (and sometimes Jesus) that uses a shape reminiscent of an open vulva as a female fertility symbol. The hood piercing as halo is a clever modern touch, but I would not be surprised if the artist is revealed to be a woman, and a deeply spiritual woman at that.

The extremist was a young, male Latin American commercial photographer from Rio de Janeiro. His latest post is a quote from Oscar Wilde, "Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known."

Was I trolled? If so, I congratulate him. But if not, I think we have a good example here about how the passions of religious belief can easily be provoked into more violent feelings — regardless of country or culture.


  1. Replies
    1. That's why I suspect the artist is female. Probably a mother, too. It speaks to me about female (pro)creative and sexual power.

  2. First and foremost, that is truly an amazingly moving piece of art. So this is not about something trivial.

    The weirdness here is the idea that "I have a right not to be offended." The missing piece of that 'logic' is pretty obvious: the request itself is offensive. One cannot live in a cocoon and then expect everyone else to play along with that. That whole bit about 'keep it private' - that person, troll or otherwise, needs to keep his stuff private if he expects to be even remotely consistent.

    1. I agree, Ron. His rationale was that this is too important a symbol, to too many people, to be presented in this context. And he was obstinate about the need to keep it from public view. The absolutism, and the way things degraded into threats, is why I was inspired to compare his basic philosophy with the extremism behind the Benghazi incident. The comparison is purely conceptual, IMHO. But of course extremist Christians are quite capable of violence, just like any other zealots.

  3. while i would agree that the artistic piece is definately reminiscent of female genitalia, nevertheless, it is also reminiscent of a traditional artform, i.e., the mandalora. I do not think the artist intended to offend. even if she/he did, it doesn't matter, that is part of the beauty of art: freedom of expression. that being said, the artist - whether visual art, musical, dance, whatever - takes on a certain responsibility when using the iconography of a given religion in their creation. An athlete that uses performance-enhancing drugs to buff up is cheating. An artist that uses religious symbolism "in a profane way" (emphasis mine) must expect some sort of response/feedback. It's really very simple.
    Personally, I think the piece is beautiful. Nothing offensive to my way of thinking. And compared to the "cunt art" of the 80's (LOL) it is very subtle.
    Each is entitled to their opinion, but i my humble opinion, the artist has responsibility that goes with freedom, especially if they choose to display their art.