CHICAGO, September 28, 2012 — As they say in comedy, timing is everything. Artist Andres Serrano is just in time. A New York art gallery is showing a photograph of his most famous work. If you are believer in any of the various Christian faiths, the work is blasphemous, sacrilegious, disgusting, despicable, deplorable, and detestable.
In the 1987 Serrano caused a stir with his photograph, “Immersion (Piss Christ).” It was a picture of a small plastic crucifix immersed in the artist’s own urine. The artwork, if it can be called that, won Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s “Awards in the Visual Arts.” The National Endowment for the Arts sponsored the awards; in effect, our tax dollars were spent on this.
When the piece was exhibited in 1989 it caused a scandal, hue and cry. When it was discovered that Serrano received $15,000.00 of tax money, outrage erupted. Politicians, pundits, overly self-righteous Christian bobble heads, and others expressed all kinds of outrage.
No art museums or galleries were burned, there was no rioting in the streets, art ambassadors were not murdered, and the artist is still alive today. He is alive and well to start the controversy all over again. President Obama has not apologized or lied about the artwork. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton is mute. Susan Rice, the Ambassador to the United Nations, is as ineffectual as the United Nations. Even Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic, hasn’t said anything stupid. Yet.
That is as it should be. In a free and civilized society, were our core values are deeply respected, people should be free to express themselves. People should be free to be offensive to the tender sensitivities of others. People should feel free to be offended and express their offense and outrage in a civilized manner.
There is also the right not to view the expression. You have every right to ignore it and the controversy surrounding it.
We can express anger and rage and if you are a deeply religious person you should. What we cannot and should never do is censor any expression of free speech, no matter how offensive, sacrilegious, or blasphemous it is. While expressing whatever negative feelings we have, we should be grateful that Andre Seranno, other artists, or people who express themselves with words, live in America.
You should be proud and thank God, the Creator, the higher power, the Great Comedian, Great Pumpkin, or whatever you believe in that people are free to express themselves without fear of repression or retribution. You should also be grateful to the Great Lightening Bolt in the Sky that you are allowed to be offended and express your offense without retribution or oppression. You even have the right to protest peaceably where ever offensive expression is on display. The operative word is peaceably.
Our rights to free speech, free expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of religion (or from religion), and peaceful assembly are unalienable and sacrosanct.
Pam Geller is a firebrand when it comes to Israel, Judaism, and what she calls “Islamofacists.” Ms. Geller has been labeled an extremist and accused of hate speech, whatever that is. She paid for advertising posters to be displayed in New York subways that can be construed by some as offensive to Muslims. The posters went up. Many people from all faiths were offended.
The price we pay to live in a free and civilized society is the right to be offended, outraged, and angered at other peoples’ point of view, especially when it is expressed, written, or spoken.
Our rights are a two way street. We have the right to do, to criticize, and be offended or angry. We have every right to express our anger and offense, as long as we do not violate the rights of others. We do not, and should never invoke a right or privilege to censor others.
With rights comes responsibility. The responsibility is not to violate the rights of others. For some, even those sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, responsibility is way more difficult.
Artists always offend someone. There will always be people who find fault or offense with everything. That’s why God created critics.
The best thing to do when you are offended by expression is to ignore it. Just like you do with the television. No one says you have to see, hear, or read it.
There are many appalling things in this world. Many of them are expressed through art, the written word, and the spoken word. They are guaranteed to offend or outrage someone.
One other appalling thing, in some parts of the world people are literally being killed over expression, speech, and religious beliefs. Reporters are being killed trying to disseminate stories.
We all have the right to express ourselves. We all have a patriotic duty to protect the rights of others to do the same.
If you think you could or should censor free speech or expression because it offends or outrages you, always remember this. There is the distinct possibility that someday someone will come after you. How would you like that?
Peter V. Bella is a retired Chicago Police Officer, freelance journalist and photojournalist, cook, and raconteur. He likes to be the irreverent sharp stick that pokes, prods, and annoys. His opinions are his and his alone. Mr. Bella is a member of the National Press Photographers Association, Online News Association, and the Society for Professional Journalists.
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