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Debate: Is it a sin to destroy a blasphemous artwork?

Or can it sometimes be morally legitimate to demolish objects that appear to mock Christianity?

By on Thursday, 21 April 2011

"Immersion - P--- Christ", a 1987 photograph by American artist Andres Serrano, pictured after it was attacked on Sunday (AP Photo/Claude Paris)

"Immersion - P--- Christ", a 1987 photograph by American artist Andres Serrano, pictured after it was attacked on Sunday (AP Photo/Claude Paris)

On Palm Sunday protesters in Avignon tried to smash a blasphemous work of art with a hammer. The artwork, called “P— Christ”, was a photograph of a statue of Christ submerged in urine. Its display had provoked anger among Christians in France: last Saturday about 1,000 people marched in protest against it. Archbishop Jean-Pierre Cattenoz of Vaucluse called the work (by Andres Serrano) “odious”.

Were the protesters right to try to destroy it? It is sinful, surely, to vandalise private property. Except, perhaps, if there is a greater good: that of removing something from view that seems to express hatred of God.

Liz Lev, an art historian at Duquesne University, told EWTN:

While violent destruction isn’t the answer for much of anything, when a work of art is of such provocation that it offends one’s faith – be that Islam, Judaism or Christianity – then it is, to some extent, an act of conscience on the part of the faithful to avoid seeing his or her God denigrated in this fashion.

So, is it sinful to destroy a blasphemous work of art? Or can it be a morally legitimate act?

  • Mark H.

    It is positively virtueous to destroy such blasphemous anti-art. These French Catholics are heroes, God bless them.

  • http://profiles.google.com/davidaldred David Aldred

    “It is sinful, surely, to vandalise private property. Except, perhaps, if there is a greater good: that of removing something from view that seems to express hatred of God.”

    I’m not keen on the argument there. Replace the “vandalise private property” with ‘kill a human being”, and you have a purported justification for killing those of the Richard Dawkins ilk, which is clearly wrong; yet relies upon the same logic. It looks to me like the ends justifying the means, an approach condemned by the Church.

    So how do we deal with these things? With peaceful protest and the apparatus of the law; and if the law comes to the conclusion that there is no offence, then use that ruling to effect the display of works pouring similar scorn (or indeed other materials as appropriate) upon the ‘artists’ concerned.

    If they find that inoffensive, then their work is probably a genuine expression of a freedom of expression which we reject at our own peril: after all, much good Christian art is offensive to those who do not live by Christian values. If, on the other hand, they protest – well, then, point made; and they can remove their own offence to avoid the counter.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YHJ2ODK7XVC443HGWK5VCJPU44 MichaelM

    The problem is that Christian objects may be destroyed by atheists because they find them “highly offensive.”. We have already seen Christian objects removed from public view because some politically correct idiot might be offended.

  • Ezra

    No.

  • Anonymous

    It is normatively intrinsically morally disordered to destroy private property of value to the owner – therefore if you commit an act of destruction towards its own end – you sin.
    Only in the prevention of an objective moral evil is it permissible to commit an intrinsically morally disordered act under the remit of moral dilemma [the flipside of double effect - which people generally confuse with double effect which is the commission of a morally disordered act [not intrinsically] towards a greater moral ordering].

    Is it art? a symbolisation of the perceived order? or is it merely malevolence and mendacity?

    Is it blasphemous? Some artworks by their very nature are indeed blasphemous – the objective defiance is manifestly obvious without needing to consider any intention behind it – e.g. the earrings made from two desiccated aborted foetuses; or the ‘ball Christ’ where a simple wooden cross has two wooden balls attached to it to represent testes and invites the viewer to touch the artwork and engage in a mock-sexual act – this can only be deemed satanic!

    Aquinas makes it quite clear that the objective blasphemy is nowhere near so important in the sin’s gravity as the product of wilful blasphemy – in other words it’s not what the artwork is saying – it’s what the artist is saying through the artwork. This may sound dangerously close to intentionalism but when it comes to art the artist’s intention can be crucial ; for the most inoffensive-looking of artworks might be the product of a deplorable blasphemous hatred. Think of the seemingly innocuous lyrics to certain songs until you realise the double-entendres and innuendos/slang involved and discover their depravity.

    Intention matters: One need only consider the tale of an Irish prist on the run from Cromwell’s troops hiding sacred vessels in the only safe place he knew the troops wouldn’t look – a dungheap!

    Supposing an artist presented a crucifix in a tank of urine or smeared in blood to a Bishops Conference to deliver a message reflecting the reality of what they were doing to Christ?

    If an artist goes too far against modern sentiments or the sacred symbols of religious beliefs?
    Would it be Tasteless? or Scandalous? or Blasphemous?
    Inexcusable?

    If it were merely tasteless? Well Catholicism doesn’t have much time for the heresy of ‘taste’ and ‘good manners’ which invariably place limitations on Truth – the Person of Christ.

    If it were scandalous? Well the question would revert to the intention.

    But if it were blasphemous – which to all intents and purposes it objectively is – irrespective of the intention/unintention of the perpetrator – well yes – we would be compelled to act against an objective evil by any action which was not objectively evil in itself – and in this case destruction would be permissible – NOTE: NOT GOOD – merely right recourse of action – it is merely restitution and the diminution of the grave moral disorder inherent in the situation which has been wrought by a world scarred with original sin in which by our own sins we have all collaborated.

    Were these French protesters doing the right thing by their attack?
    Awkward, distasteful but truthful answer is Yes!!!

  • Anonymous

    Might be a problem Michael but they’re wrong – we’re not!
    We can’t afford to live in an accommodating way absolutely all the time – we obey the State law at all times UNLESS it stands in Heaven’s way – then we are compelled to refuse to comply or defiantly act against it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Hans-Coessens/1071642602 Hans Coessens

    Is it bad to vandalise a work of vandalism? The answer is of course not. Vandalism per se is bad, but adding something bad on it does not make it worse. And since when is something blasphemous art?

  • Mgannome

    Jesus did some damage in the temple with the money-changers. Obviously that was OK.

  • Anonymous

    The very act of vandalizing or destroying such a piece immediately give it more notoriety or credence than deserved, and thus achieves exactly what the “Artist” intended. If you really want to tick off that sort of “artist”, ignore them. Turning the other cheek isn’t easy, but it’s the mature thing.

  • PhilipH

    My feeling is whatever the rights and wrongs of it, it’s best not to smash or attack such works of “art”. If you do that, you you are giving the “artist” exactly what he/she wants – publicity and controversy. Such people should be prayed for in the hope that they will see the error of their ways before it is too late, but their works of “art” are best ignored.

  • Madeline

    I would destroy it also!! I would never destroy the person who created it!

  • Jeannine

    I do not condone the destruction or taking away of private property. That said, this vile item is not art. It does not bring peace & harmony to the soul nor is it uplifting. Mr Serrano is a provocateur not an artist.

  • TX Catholic

    I hate it when people abuse free speech and free expression – it’s supposed to be used to express differing and sometimes difficult opinions so that people can have good discussions and think rationally about something. When you say or depict something that is intended to provoke an angry response, you’ll get a reaction, all right, but not necessarily real thought or discussion. In addition to being immature enough to think “just because I can do something, I will,” the artist is being manipulative – if we do nothing, he gets to assert his ability to do what he wants and we look weak, but if you oppose him violently, he gets publicity and we look intolerant. We shouldn’t be manipulated. The protestors have a right to protest and to fight bad speech or opinions with better speech or opinions (a nice middle ground between bad alternatives is usually the best place to stand), but destruction will only make the protestors look like they can’t handle criticism of any kind and embolden the artist to try to top his previous “best.” And besides, the artworks are someone else’s property. So, for rhetorical and moral reasons, I say we take the high road. We can always pray for his soul and his eventual conversion, and in the meantime, let’s not give him more publicity.

    At least, so says the angel on my shoulder. The devil on my other shoulder says we should leave the artwork alone, submerge the artist in a clear tank of whatever interesting fluid we choose, take a few pictures, and see how he likes it. I think I’ll stick with the angel, though – if violence against an object is bad, violence against a person is worse.

  • Ratbag

    Andress Serano is clearly a p*** artist!

    Would he sink a copy of the Koran in a perspex box of wee-wee and call it art? Thought not…

    So, dear followers of Christ, I suggest we pray for this thick-head because he doesn’t know art if it jumped up and smacked him across the kisser with a pair incontinence pants!

    He’s a bully who thinks it’s cool to mock Christ Our Lord and – this is the sad bit – he hopes the notoriety will give him publicity.

    How would Serano like it if someone took a picture of someone he loves and filled it up with wee-wee or something more stinky? Yeah, right!

    Your 15 minutes are up, you sorry excuse for a human being, Serano!

  • Dorothy Cummings McLean

    I’m surprised this happened. It reminds me, in a small way, of the burning of Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.”

    This photograph is offensive only because of its title and how it was achieved. Ironically, the very contempt of placing a crucifix in a jar of urine mirrors the contempt of those who crucified our Lord in the first place. It is not beyond the reach of imagination to suggest that the Roman soldiers might have done more to express their contempt and brutality than merely hit and spit.

    When I look at the photograph, I am struck by the nobility of Christ Crucified despite the title. Urine cannot diminish Him. The title cannot diminish Him. Nearly two thousand years ago, no matter what was done to Christ’s own precious body, His own nobility could not be diminished.

    Despite the artist’s intentions (whatever they were) the colours and light are beautiful and misty. I dislike this photograph only because it represents contempt. However, that in itself gives us a meditation on the events of Good Friday. Usually artists portray the Crucifixion with reverence. This artist portrays the Crucifixion with the same spirit as the crucifiers. Instead of ripping up his work (which is futile as presumably it will last for centuries on negatives and in prints), we should merely note it as an example of how the World still knows Him not.

  • Dorothy Cummings McLean

    I’m surprised this happened. It reminds me, in a small way, of the burning of Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.”

    This photograph is offensive only because of its title and how it was achieved. Ironically, the very contempt of placing a crucifix in a jar of urine mirrors the contempt of those who crucified our Lord in the first place. It is not beyond the reach of imagination to suggest that the Roman soldiers might have done more to express their contempt and brutality than merely hit and spit.

    When I look at the photograph, I am struck by the nobility of Christ Crucified despite the title. Urine cannot diminish Him. The title cannot diminish Him. Nearly two thousand years ago, no matter what was done to Christ’s own precious body, His own nobility could not be diminished.

    Despite the artist’s intentions (whatever they were) the colours and light are beautiful and misty. I dislike this photograph only because it represents contempt. However, that in itself gives us a meditation on the events of Good Friday. Usually artists portray the Crucifixion with reverence. This artist portrays the Crucifixion with the same spirit as the crucifiers. Instead of ripping up his work (which is futile as presumably it will last for centuries on negatives and in prints), we should merely note it as an example of how the World still knows Him not.

  • Dorothy Cummings McLean

    I’m surprised this happened. It reminds me, in a small way, of the burning of Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.”

    This photograph is offensive only because of its title and how it was achieved. Ironically, the very contempt of placing a crucifix in a jar of urine mirrors the contempt of those who crucified our Lord in the first place. It is not beyond the reach of imagination to suggest that the Roman soldiers might have done more to express their contempt and brutality than merely hit and spit.

    When I look at the photograph, I am struck by the nobility of Christ Crucified despite the title. Urine cannot diminish Him. The title cannot diminish Him. Nearly two thousand years ago, no matter what was done to Christ’s own precious body, His own nobility could not be diminished.

    Despite the artist’s intentions (whatever they were) the colours and light are beautiful and misty. I dislike this photograph only because it represents contempt. However, that in itself gives us a meditation on the events of Good Friday. Usually artists portray the Crucifixion with reverence. This artist portrays the Crucifixion with the same spirit as the crucifiers. Instead of ripping up his work (which is futile as presumably it will last for centuries on negatives and in prints), we should merely note it as an example of how the World still knows Him not.

  • Anonymous

    I agree entirely and with your comparison with Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. In both cases I would have preferred if the artist had been less offensive but I would do everything I could to preserve their right and the rights of the owner and of the private gallery collection where it was displayed. I would not go to see this collection any more than other shock pieces but since the photo has been reproduced in newspapers I agree that it is strangely moving.

  • Skip

    Jesus whipped the money-changers in the temple for their descecration of what deserves to be reverenced. I say “sock it to them.” Let them know the faithful aren’t door mats to be mocked and pushed around. Let them know they’ve gone to far. These so-called artists are nothing more than brat kids who will push and push and intimidate and dominate. You have to spank their butts and teach them a lesson. Christians are so brainwashed into being “nice” we have forgotten “holy anger.” It’s okay to be zealous for the things of God. Note: These artists aren’t descrating Mohammed are they? Why not?

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

    It’s not our Cheek to turn Michael….

  • http://catholiclane.com Mary Kochan — Catholic Lane

    Is it sinful for Christians to assent to live in a secular society? That is the real question. Because once we have assented to that, it seems we have assented to live in a society that will tolerate blasphemous “art.”

  • Memory-of-Forever

    asking this question is like asking “is it a sin to assassinate Hitler”… uh, NO!

  • Anonymous

    There is a huge difference between intrusive offensiveness, such as walking into a church and shouting blasphemous obscenities, and non-intrusive offensiveness, such as exhibiting controversial images in galleries. The first is an aggressive invasion of a congregation’s sacred space, which they can neither expect nor avoid. The second is only to be expected by anyone familiar with the modern art world, and can easily be avoided, either by not visiting the gallery, if warned of potentially offensive images, or by walking out, if coming across them without warning. In a church, people have the right not to see such images, but not in an art gallery, which has no sacred function. Whether this piece has any artistic value is, as always, a subjective matter and has nothing to do with the question of whether it is right to vandalise it. The people who damaged the picture did not own it, and, since it was in an enclosed space that they did not have to walk through, they were not being forced to look at it, so we can only surmise that they see themselves as self-appointed authorities on what can be voluntarily seen in enclosed spaces and what can’t. This is arrogant and dictatorial. I find some of the content of the Bible offensive, but I do not go into churches destroying Bibles. That would be a property crime. What these protestors did was a property crime and they should pay for the damage. People who demand respect for their sensitivities in such a way do not deserve it.

  • Anonymous

    I love your line “Urine cannot diminish Him”. That surely deserves a place in some liturgy or other.

  • Anonymous

    If atheists destroy Christian objects belonging to other people, the owners have a right to prosecute. Removing a Christian object from public view does not destroy it and might be considered appropriate in certain public locations that are used by people of all ideologies and cultures, but as you do not specify what objects have been removed and why, I cannot comment on the cases to which you refer.

  • Andr3w

    The argument here doesn’t seem to be about whether this is a work of art (and therefore of greater value than any old snapshot) or not but that it is a piece of private property. Obviously we have to maintain a fairlyhigh level of respect for private property in order to maintain social order.

    But if we are going to say that it is morally legitimate to destroy those objects one holds to be blasphemous one could go so far as to ask whether it is morally legitimate for Christians to burn copies of the Koran or Muslims copies of The Bible. In both cases, each religion sees something blasphemous in the other’s book. The Koran denies the divinity of Christ while The Bible affirms it. But no one’s seriously going to suggest this is a legitimate for Christians and Muslims to proceed.

    However, there is clearly another issue here that is not strictly related to the content or subject matter or the offending piece of private property. In both the case of The Bible and The Koran neither was written with the expressed intention of blaspheming, nor with the expectation that the text would be blasphemous and cause a public sensation for that reason. In the case of this photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine it is difficult to see how the person who made this could not have known that such a photograph would cause offence to Christians. Rather than being an assertion of what the maker of this photograph believes to be the truth about the world (as is the case with The Bible and The Koran) this does seem to be primarily an artistic attempt to publicly undermine Christianity. By doing so the artist in question must have knowingly taken the risk that his work would cause a serious offence to Christians. Even if causing offence was not his principle reason for making this photograph he should still have known what effect it was likely to have. This alone might be good reasons for not putting the photograph on public display. However, if his intention was to cause serious offence for no other reason than sensation then the work should definitely be censored.

    As you can see I would err on the side of censorship rather than any kind of vigilantism. Just as the photograph in question causes offence to Christians so too public acts of vandalism are an assault on the concept of private property. For this reason I would say it is definitely not acceptable to commit such acts of vandalism for the sake of the serious offence this will cause to the necessary idea of private property. However, I also believe the work should be taken out of a public gallery and should not be shown.

  • http://twitter.com/kiranmi kiran ignatius

    Why has a 1987 photograph become famous all of a sudden? By attacking this piece of pseudo-art we have achieved only- 1. Giving the artist some cheap publicity 2. Acknowledging that this somehow diminishes Jesus’s worth. Apart from showing our intolerance…
    A more xian way of protesting would be to ask viewers who are coming out of the place to introspect and see if the artist’s work was really art and what it really achieves.

  • Mack Hall

    Destroying a blasphemous work of art is good; the only issue is the matter of by what authority. Poor, stupid Serrano’s look-at-me-ness is obvious, but let us remember that some folks think dance a blasphemy.

  • Anonymous

    The San Petronio Basilica in Bologna contains a fresco by Giovanni da Modena showing Mohammad being swallowed by a devil in hell. To muslims an image of Mohammad in hell is at least as blasphemous as an image of Christ in urine appears to you and, unsurprisingly, there have been attempts to destroy this fresco. If a group of outraged muslims should succeed in doing so by some method that did not pose a risk to life or limb, would you applaud them as heroes or deplore them as vandals?

  • Anonymous

    There are several differences between assassinating Hitler and destroying a work of art that makes you cross, but for me the key one is that Serrano’s picture has not caused collossal genocide and global war. Had it done so, I’d be all for trashing it.

  • Anonymous

    Serrano’s photo is not a work of vandalism, since he has not damaged anything. To answer your second question, any object can be called a work of art if it has been created with some expressive intention, whether aesthetic, emotional or intellectual, and this definition applies as much to Serrano’s photo, or a potato print made in a primary school classroom, as it does to anything by Michaelangelo, though it does not follow that they are of equal value. Mediocre art is still art, and is not disqualified by elements of shock, provocation and blasphemy, which also occur in some artworks of lasting repute. The San Petronio Basilica in Bologna contains a fresco by Giovanni da Modena showing Mohammad being swallowed by a devil in hell. See my reply to Mark H below.

  • Anonymous

    Turn the other cheek? No? – you want to give into the intended provocation that the artist seeks.
    Then they get the response they want, and we just add fuel to the fire.
    Nothing improves – and it makes us look as if we cannot win the intellectual argument – which we can.

  • michael in sydney

    Actually it would have been a sin to kill Hitler. I seem to remember killing is prohibited in the ten commandments.

  • anonymous

     Coudln’t have typed that better myself.