Who would have ever thought that cave art dating back more than 8,000 years could be treated like an ‘infidel’ and found guilty of religious offence to such an extent that they have to be obliterated? That’s what happened in the fall of 2012 in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, when a group of Salafi Muslims destroyed a number of prehistoric stone carvings at an archaeological site.
Before being discovered on the Yakour plain near Marrakesh, 20 kilometres [12 miles] south of the towering Mount Toubkal, the carvings, – which depicted the sun and predated the arrival of the Phoenicians in Morocco – had survived thousands of years of harsh weather and tomb raiders. They were destroyed for being a form of idolatry, which Salafism prohibits.
As a powerful symbolic gesture, the Salafists’ destruction of the cave art is up there with the demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, a cultural trauma broadcast round the world in 2001 when, deaf to all international appeals, the Taliban blasted them out of their niches leaving a pile of rubble . The Metropolitan Museum in New York, along with India and Pakistan, had offered to save the stone colossi, ‘pre-Islamic idols’ that fell victim to religious hatred.
Fifteen hundred years old, one statue was over 124 feet tall, the other 174 feet. The gaping void that remains, bereft of beauty or ideas, has been the favourite haunt of a visionary artist for years now. Japan’s Hiro Yamagata has devised a plan for recreating the Buddhas with laser images beamed from the hills of Bamiyan. Powered by solar panels and wind turbines, they would project the reproductions of the originals, in fluorescent hues. Meanwhile, in Kabul, the National Afghan Museum is experiencing a rebirth. It was ruthlessly sacked in 2001 when the Taliban spirited over 2500 works out of the building – with the help of the guards.
Deemed sacrilegious, many of those items were then destroyed, but their fragments were preserved, and today, thanks to painstaking restoration, 300 pieces have already resumed their original, albeit damaged, identity. Despite the fact that over the centuries art has often been commissioned by popes, rabbis, monks and imams, its coexistence with religion has often been a tricky one.
Contemporary art is locked into a permanent conflict with religious institutions, with countless clashes in the field. When defeated in its battle for free expression, it has paid for its provocations in the form of total destruction at worst, and attacks and acts of vandalism at best.
There are various reasons why certain artworks seem to invite anathemas. The scandals, when not sexually motivated, often stem from charges of blasphemy.
Over the ages, the Catholic Church has repudiated an astonishing number of works of art, even certain paintings by Caravaggio, shunned for, among other reasons, depicting a Madonna modelled after a drowned prostitute and the filthy soles of saints’ feet.
More recently, a work by Franco-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed caused great controversy and even led to impromptu demonstrations by some Christian groups. In the crypt of Notre Dame des Miracles in Mayenne, France, the artist’s video installation ‘Lise’ showed a woman in the iconic Madonna and Baby Jesus pose – but nursing a piglet instead of a newborn Christ. This did not go down to well. Abdessemed had previously outraged conservatives in Qatar with his statue of French footballer Zinedine Zidane famously head-butting Italian footballer Marco Materazzi. Decried as being contrary to the principles of Islam and offensive to Muslims everywhere, the 15-foot-tall sculpture was promptly removed from display in Doha, and with it, according to officials, any temptation to commit idolatry.
Another well-known cause célèbre is Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ (1987), a photo of a small plastic crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. In April of 2011, visitors at an exhibition in Avignon showed their disapproval by vandalising it ‘beyond repair’. In 2011, a 35,000-strong petition repudiated the content of the work, and demonstrations by Catholic fundamentalist movements were held to defend the faith.
The set designs for Romeo Castellucci’s play On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God also sparked an unprecedented uproar, with protesters forming human chains around theatres in Paris, Milan and elsewhere. It was declared a sacrilege because a giant reproduction of Antonello da Messina’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ served as the backdrop to a dying, incontinent old man.
A 1999 work by sculptor Maurizio Cattelan was heavily criticised for showing Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite. When the installation, ‘La Nona Ora’ (The ninth hour), was exhibited in Poland in 2000, a couple of Polish parlamentarians physically attacked the work, moved, they later said, by the desire to “protect the Holy Father”. A bright green crucified frog by German artist Martin Kippenberger also met an ignominious end when it was displayed in the newly inaugurated Museion in Bolzano, in Italy’s South Tyrol. ‘Feet First’ was swiftly covered up with newspapers following an ad hoc hate campaign. Admittedly, such opposition to scattered provocative gestures intended to shake up Catholics – crimes against good taste, perhaps, more than against the faith – is hardly comparable to the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
Yet taken all together they are a clear sign of the risk artists run when they create works that, in one way or another, use a visual medium to address the human soul.
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