Video Clips

When Art Offends Fr John Hogan

Damien Hirst has done it again! The self-styled "enfant terrible" of Brit Art has been collaborating with David Bailey on a series of photographs entitled "Stations of the Cross", fourteen contemporary representations of Jesus' passion and death, exhibited earlier this year in London. Hirst's work has always been somewhat "unorthodox", and true to form the photographs certainly challenge traditional iconography; in fact one could go so far as to say they are blasphemous. The tenth station, Jesus is Stripped, for example, presents a half naked woman with dowdy make-up crowned with barbed wire, her arms spread out over a cross-beam. The twelfth, Jesus Dies on the Cross depicts a wooden cross covered in cigarette butts. An exhibition designed to shock it seems, and a well aimed dig at Catholicism.

Over the last few years we have become accustomed to such artistic antics: Catholicism seems to be fair game. Why do artists engage in such work? Why so offensive? In recent controversies we as Catholics have been informed that artists can legitimately critique (lampoon?) our beliefs and religious practices in the name of artistic expression and enquiry. In objecting we are taking a fundamentalist line, not being open to contemporary explorations of existence and belief. Art is neutral, we are told; people may be challenged, but the supreme ethic of art is free expression and while some works will push boundaries, they still constitute legitimate artistic expression and to hinder that is censorship. So we must endure such works as crucifixes submerged in urine, images of Our Lady surrounded by elephant dung and a plethora of anti-Catholic movies. The last year, however, revealed a very interesting turn of events. With the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, those artists and critics who maintain there should be few if any limits on artistic expression were calling for that movie to be banned, censored or boycotted. So there are limits after all.

Art is extremely influential. The image, the written word and music have the power to change minds and touch hearts. An artist can influence how people see reality and how they react to it. Art can inspire and agitate. It is a powerful social commentary and a deeply spiritual form. For centuries men and women have been exploring what it means to be human through artistic creations. The search for God has been expressed through their work, and as Christians we believe that God can speak to us through art, as we see in the theology of Icons. While art can be used for edification, it can also be used to control. The Nazis and Communists saw the immeasurable benefits of propaganda through the arts and patronized those artists who acclaimed the Nazi or Marxist ideal. Even today ideologists use artistic forms to spread their revolutionary ideas and their efforts have been enormously successful: the American writer/ film-maker Michael Moore and novelist Dan Brown are two such examples.

Because art is powerful those who practice it must exercise not only the high standard of their artistic ability in order to be true to the gift given them, but also a particular responsibility. Contrary to certain opinions, art does not exist in an ethical void: it is not and never was neutral. No dimension of human existence lies outside the realm of the moral and art as a human endeavour must be governed by certain ethical values and principles. Objectively speaking, art in its nature as a human activity is properly orientated towards the good, specifically through beauty. It is also a participation in the creative act of God, as Pope John Paul II teaches in his Letter to Artists; so one can say that art is, in a sense, a divine undertaking.

Not all artists are religious, some might object; true; but as all humans are bound to certain modes of behaviour (even atheists acknowledge that some form of ethical code is necessary for harmonious human existence and mutual respect) so also with artists. This is not to impose religious values or censorship, but to be an artist necessarily means one must be ethical and responsible in what one produces; they must know their limits, know what is harmful and what is not; what builds up the human community for the good and what destroys it.

Some maintain that art is in the eye of the beholder: that the artist does not impose any particular view: the viewer alone interprets the work; if they are offended, then that is their own (flawed/ over-sensitive?) interpretation at work. This is just another expression of the contemporary culture of relativism. Art is not the creation of a void either ethically or thematically: that view undermines the very nature of art. Chesterton once said art is about communication: when one human mind communicates with another; art is an ethical undertaking because it is communication, and if that communication is offensive or one wants to communicate offense, then there is something wrong with the art, if we can call that art.

Art will challenge and must, but it is not about taking cheap shots, it is an altogether different exercise: its aims should be much higher and should resonate with a certain quality. If an artist wants only to shock others or produce a novelty - a piece which will be considered de rigueur in this season's fashion parade, then serious questions have to be asked about his ability and commitment to artistic endeavour. When art is obviously offensive, as those anti-Catholic works are, serious ethical questions need to be posed about that work, the motivation behind it and the artist's ethical responsibility. And are we right to be offended? Yes, we are; and we are right to say something about it.