Print Edition: November 30, 2011
I am writing this week about something that’s going to get me in trouble. I know it and I suspect you know it too, just not quite yet… so read on and let’s get this circus on the road.
Earlier this semester, a piece of student art was pulled off the wall of a gallery at Trinity Western University, for being so shocking, so outrageous, so downright controversial, that innocent bystanders were being instilled with dangerous levels of righteous anger merely by standing in its presence. Also they were developing an inexplicable appreciation for pagan fertility rituals and the sensuous taste of dark chocolate, sure signs that their vulnerable minds were being corrupted.*
The piece of artwork in question, a screenprint with the sinister (and possibly heretical) title IrreverEaster, depicts the crucifixion scene of Christ hanging limply upon the cross, except that Christ’s head has been replaced with that of… wait for it…
The Easter Bunny.
The image can be found online. I’m not going to reproduce it here, because, as anybody who’s read Violet Hart’s column knows, this is a family newspaper and we have certain standard of morality to enforce. What I am going to do is talk a little bit about the controversy this “authoritarian dogmatism”** has stirred up at Trinity, and whether Rabbit Jesus° truly deserves his time in the limelight.
The central issue, as in all similar cases, is one of freedom of expression. As Dylan De Jong, a contributor to Trinity’s Mars Hill student newspaper wrote, “censoring a work prevents the possibility of relation from the outset, negates reciprocity, and reverts dialogue to a conflict of power; the exertion of this power remains unchecked by the need for justification or conversation.” After you’ve read that sentence the necessary four times, I think you’ll agree that, in a society that defines art as a “dialogue” between artist and audience, De Jong is casting censorship as the ultimate artistic sin. He later states that such action reduces art to decoration or propaganda, and ominously warns, “if this institution has the absolute power to revoke any expression without precedence or dialogue, there can be no freedom.”
De Jong’s statement is actually the more moderate one made in the Mars Hill. Mathew Braun, the Arts & Culture editor, has previously implied that the purpose of the censoring was to prevent controversy and that “Trinity Western University will not achieve greatness if we are unwilling to address controversy,” a statement that (while fair at the abstract level) places far too much of the blame for this specific situation upon the administration.
Here is where I get in trouble. Obviously the act of censorship does imply that the displayed art should conform to certain expectations, and obviously the university’s decision to remove the artwork also removes any potential viewer’s ability to “dialogue” with it, but does this actually destroy art as we know it?
Not in my opinion. In fact, I sense a false dichotomy here. It seems that according to De Jong, all true art must be accepted unilaterally, because to censor a single piece destroys the integrity of art as a whole and compromises the ethos of the artist. We, the uncreative masses, have neither the vision nor the understanding for such power, as we are bound by our sociological and cultural constructs. In fact, ideally we would have no say on the matter; our sole purpose being to show up at the exhibition and “dialogue” the heck out of everything in sight. It seems that De Jong is saying that the validity of art, by its very definition, must never be rejected – only explored.
After all “the comical and ridiculous irony” (according to De Jong) of the situation is that Daniel Hurst (the artist) intended a very positive message for his piece. In his artist statement Hurst proposes that by “allowing Easter to be these two ideologies simultaneously. I am materializing what is conflicting in my mind; this sacrilegious amalgamation of self-indulgent chocolate bunny and selfless Jesus.”
Here, as a religious person myself, I sympathize. Hurst’s piece does have a noble message and he’s not the only one who has regretted the loss of religious meaning to consumer-oriented holidays, yet I doubt this has much bearing upon the censorship. Hurst’s work was not removed from the exhibit because of its intended meaning; it was removed because the medium by which he conveyed that meaning could be construed as a blatant misuse of a religious icon. While some might see this “shock value” as necessary in the struggle to draw attention to a relevant issue, what it has instead done is polarized a community over a controversy unrelated to the artist’s point. Hurst mentions that his negative association with Easter chocolate stems from the fact that much of the cocoa is harvested by child slaves in the Ivory Coast, yet that valid concern has been submerged in the waters of controversy.
Instead of immediately denouncing the censoring party for being narrow-minded, ignorant, and dogmatic, I think we should take a step back, and ask a couple of questions about the work itself. If the point of “Rabbit Jesus” was indeed to be the medium for a noble point, and not just to shock a response from the religious crowd, then is it not fair to criticize the efficacy of the medium in conveying that point? And if the medium is the message itself, created for the express purpose of eliciting shock (some might remember the infamous jar of urine dilemma), then by what moral imperative does it demand recognition? Is it indeed, by nature of being labeled “art,” beyond rejection?
If so, then that sets a dangerous precedent that I look forward to exploiting in the future. But I also realize we just strayed into dangerous waters, so I’m cutting myself off. The official reason given for the removal of IrreverEaster is “due to concerns it could offend because it [was placed in] a reception area.” The unofficial reason is obviously to give one lucky student the chance to use “authoritarian dogmatism” in a sentence.
*This paragraph is mostly sensational rubbish.
**This either refers to the administrative decision to remove the artwork or the mentality behind the Spanish Inquisition. I got the feeling that the writer who used this term considered both to be comparable evils.
°Come to think of it, that’s only one letter away from Rabbi Jesus. The world is full of small ironies.