SEX, RELIGION AND IMAGE
The Khajuraho temple in Indian is covered with sculptures and bas-reliefs of people "doing it", monumental religious pornography.
The priest explained; "the illiterate peasants, men and women who farmed the countryside, would see the sculptures and be reminded of their duty to procreate." The visitor replied, astounded that one would need to be reminded. The priest nodded, "oh yes, people forget!"
On my first exhibition in New York, I received a letter from the gallery which said "as we are funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, please do not exhibit religious images or frontal nudity." I never heard an assignment so clearly defined; "combine sex and religion, touch a sore spot in Western civilisation."
One of the creative functions is to challenge cultural errors, to compensate for the deviations of the cultural ethos, these but the by-products of a Puritan society. The deviance is within society itself.
Our contemporary sexual paradigm is based on a Judeo-Christian tradition as interpreted by John Calvin, Martin Luther, Cromwell, et al. These severe intellectuals applied a rigorous discipline to Christian concepts marking the soul as good and the body as bad, a morality which states that pleasure or happiness are the realm of the devil; "Christ died for your sins, and you dare laugh"?
A young punk, a street kid, was saying that "he didn't mind a few piercings, a nose or nipple ring, some ritual scarification, but that dude Jesus, man... Nails through both hands and feet, that crown of thorns, harsh torture... That's extreme, man!" This presents a few questions psychology might ask of Christianity.
What kind of religion would have as its highest symbol a tortured bleeding man dying nailed to a cross? What is it trying to say? The "Immitation of Christ" is a Christian's highest goal. What does that mean in terms of the crucifixion? Would you teach this to your children? Would you want them to practice at home? These reflections imply that Christianity is a barbarous practice leading to a neurotic and unhappy mindset.
And it does. Plato's metaphor of the cave is applicable here. In this metaphor, people are in a cave, chained facing the wall. All they know is their shadow and that stone wall. Could they turn around, they would see daylight pouring through the entrance. Could they go outside, they would see green hills, blue sky, white rolling clouds. Enter the cave, tell them of this beautiful planet; they would consider you mad, knowing only their limited reality. Else they would hate you, for ripping the veil of denial.
Plato had seen something to gain that perspective. Our reality is formed by our mind set, our cultural beliefs, our moral and ethical framework. These values rule our perception and behaviour. In any case, our reading so far casts some serious doubt on our culture's mental hygiene and suggests a re-examination of our paradigms. Such re-examination and revaluation are a constant necessity for growth, else the culture degenerates.
I always wondered if political thought simply reflected changes within culture, or if it actually leads to change. Years ago, I was living with 4 radical lesbians; we were good friends. I worked with feminist issues then; feminism was a kind of sacred cow and to comment on feminist praxis as a man could arouse some intense antagonism. It was done as an experiment, an overtly sexist piece, politically incorrect, aesthetically beautiful. My friends would look at it for a long time, replying that they should hate it because of content, yet were overpowered by the aesthetics.
This was a scientific test of art theory, concerned with empirical fact. The results frame this question; can form have a greater validity than content? Form/content issues are more than skin-deep. What has the greater meaning? Is intellectual knowledge truly dependable, or is it an evasion of more pressing issues?
The choice of style is of pertinent value. If "we are as on a darkling plain, where ignorant armies fight by night", the urgency of events within our own time take precedence over irrelevant discourse. There are moral and ethical issues within the art world, of dishonesty by those who consider themselves irreprochable, of ignorance among those who consider themselves educated, of naive claims to transcendent thought among those who but parrot the thoughts of others, claims of creativity among those who but illustrate critical theory.
The cultural dialogue is like a court of law. One side argues that it is common agreement, the authority of established institutions, which dictates the meaning and value of a work of art through acceptance or rejection. This was Marcel Duchamp's opinion. Another side argues that this judgement is subject to verification, as cultural beliefs can be mistaken.
We are as limited as those fundamentalists who issued the fawta on Salman Rushdie. I sometimes wondered if that fawta was not deserved for the following reasons; I'd read two previous books by Rushdie; "Shame" and "Midnight's Children". I was impressed with Rushdie's genius, his use of language, the breath of his vision. "Satanic Verses", on the other hand, was a terrible disappointment. I thought Rushdie's publishers rushed him to print before the book was ready. Thus the fawta was deserved, not for impiety, but for bad literature.
© Miklos Legrady, May 24, 1999.
AESTHETICS ON TRIAL
BODY ART AT EXIT ART
THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES
CYCLES OF CHANGE IN ART MOVEMENTS
THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
THIS WORK IS A POLITICAL ACT
SEX, RELIGION, IMAGE
ITS MY FAULT