I was all revved up to respond to this paragraph from Keith Urbahn on The Passion:

Charges of ?anti-Semitism? have been conveniently tossed around by those who object to the film?s portraying of Jews in a negative light. Ironically, many of these guardians of religious sensitivity are the same who defended the desecration of the Virgin Mary in elephant dung at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the name of freedom of expression, and now with the tables turned, condemn the film as rabidly anti-Semitic and a breach of the norms of decency.

But it turns out James Kirchick, with whom I agree on few things, has beat me to it:

First off, there is a major difference in defending an art museum’s first amendment right to display whatever art it chooses, and advocating that the museum be forced to close the exhibit altogether. I defy Keith to find a statement from Abraham Foxman or any of the other major Jewish leaders he accuses, demanding that the government prevent Gibson from displaying his art, which is what Catholic leaders urged, and ultimately convinced, Mayor Giuliani to do in the “Sensation” episode. Second, as I remember, the “Sensation” exhibit was essentially an elephant-dung stained portrait of Mary, created by a Catholic. However tasteless that piece of “artwork” may be, it does not compare to a Catholic defaming a people of different faith.

Jamie makes the central point: that protesting the nature of a piece of art is not a parallel activity to protesting the freedom of an independant artist to create it or of a publically-funded institution to display it. Intentionally obscuring this line allowed conservative commentators to have a heyday claiming that the Ofili episode was yet another demonstration that liberals hate religion except when it’s aberrant and/or un-Christian. Keith risks echoing that line in the graph above – what exactly does it mean to say “now that the tables are turned”? Now that Jews rather than Christians are allegedly impugned? I trust that Keith doesn’t intend the nastier readings of that line – but it’s an unfortunate turn of phrase.

I do disagree with Jamie, however, on two points. The first, which is incidental, is that I agree with Jack Newfield’s account in this book that Giuliani’s stand against Ofili’s painting was much less about his bowing to pressure from the “Catholic leaders” Jamie references and much more about his ill-conceived gambit to pick up suburban votes for his senate run by sparking a controversy. Second, while I agree with Jamie that the Museum had the right to display “tasteless” art, I think to describe Ofili’s work as “tasteless” is an unfortunate mischaracterization of the piece – a mischaracterization which went largely unchallenged in the press at the time. Ofili was a Nigerian altar boy who set out to create a work to reconcile his African heritage and his Christian identity. The elephant dung was a traditional sign of respect which he incorporated into portraits of other figures as well. “The Holy Virgin Mary” was, in Ofili’s words, “a hip hop version.” I wrote more about this in the early days of this site in a post here (scroll all the way down), on a strangely fitting coda to the whole episode.

In related news, Drudge is reporting that Mel Gibson declined to appear in tonight’s Oscars because he was afraid he’d be booed. So much for redemption in suffering.

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