Tuesday, September 27, 2005

God Is Great...the Tate Britain, Somewhat Less So

Terrorism experts say the greatest threat posed by guerilla-type strikes and acts of terrorism (the very rationale behind them, in fact) is that the people attacked will over-react and in doing so help escalate the confusion and chaos in which terrorists can thrive. Indeed, given the numbers represented by the opposing sides, there's only one way the Islamist terrorists can actually "win" the "war on terror," and that's if they can shake things up enough that we voluntarily begin to behave more like they would have us behave. If we end up radically changing our way of life. If we ourselves change our values and in doing so become less "free."

That's why I find the decision of the Tate Britain to remove a piece they had on exhibit so damnable.
Artinfo has the story:

The Tate Britain museum has removed a work made up of sacred texts from Christianity, Judaism and Islam torn and mounted on glass to avoid offending religious sensibilities following the July transit bombings in London, the museum said Sunday.

The museum said it was particularly concerned that John Latham's piece
God Is Great could upset Muslims. It pulled the work from an exhibition of Latham's art despite his objection.

"Having sought wide-ranging advice, Tate feels that to exhibit the work in London in the current sensitive climate, post July 7, would not be appropriate," the museum said in a statement.
The Tate Britain is 100% wrong.

In the current climate what the people of London, including its Muslims, need more than anything is more dialog, more connection, more common ground, not less. Leave the freakin' piece where it is. If it upsets Muslims, so be it. They're no more entitled to be offended by the piece than Jews or Christians are. The Tate's displaying a disturbing blend of cowardice and short-sightedness here. If there was ever a means to unite the three major religions, this piece might be it.

Seriously, what would happen should Muslims demand that the piece be taken down because their holy text was not to be "disrepsected" in this way? Would London's devout Jews and Christians rise to the challenge and defend their holy texts as well? If not, why the hell not? Might not a resulting fracas demonstrate how much more they all have in common? It certainly should. That is most certainly one of the messages one could take away from such a piece.

Oh, I know, the fear isn't a debate. The fear is the nutjob jihadists will use the piece to justify further violence. Newsflash: they don't need prompting. They're so disconnected from reality they'll kill innocent women and children, including Muslims, to supposedly advance God's will. The appropriate response to them is not to cave in, tip-toe around, or walk on eggshells. That response will only encourage them to strike again, even harder. The appropriate response is a public defiance so loud and so clear it shows them what cowards they really are in comparison.

Latham requested that the Tate, who bought the piece, return it to him:

"Tate Britain have shown cowardice over this," he told The Observer newspaper. "I think it's a daft thing to do because, if they want to help the militants, this is the way to do it."

Latham is 100% right.


Anonymous james leonard said...


Just... wow.

I'm getting awfully tired of free speech belonging only to radicalized conservative bullies (originating from any faith or doctrine).

9/27/2005 11:38:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm getting awfully tired of free speech belonging only to radicalized conservative bullies

I totally agree. Poor bullies, we won't just sit by while they spew their hatred.

9/27/2005 11:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Todd W. said...

What I found most galling about this is that the Tate hides behind some contrived sense of responsibility to "relgious sensabilities". I cannot imagine their reaction would have been the same for a piece that strictly pertained to the Christian or Jewish religions. The hypocrisy is astounding, only to be matched by cowardice.

9/27/2005 12:45:00 PM  
Anonymous sarah said...




9/27/2005 03:11:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

Thing is, the press deserted all sense of responsibility to the truth long ago - the arts are all we have left, and the institutions that support them. When those fail, the people are indeed royally screwed.

9/27/2005 06:15:00 PM  
Blogger fluidthought said...

and here i was, smugly thinking it was only happening in new york with the drawing center and 'knock at the door'. silly me! i must have been forgetting that, in terms of politics at least, this country is bush's america in disquise.

and am i the only one to find it just a tad ironic that the tate doesn't seem to think that a good part of its collection would, on some level, offend those of a religious persuasion? last i heard, religious folk didn't take kindly to nudity, profanity and sexually suggestive images. ergo, they'd need to remove a great deal of work that is, and has been on show.

as with the drawing center and all the rest, i think the whole thing stinks!!

you made some excellent points, especially regarding the need for more dialogue, not less. i'm really glad you posted this - thanks!

9/27/2005 07:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Edward - You're a gallerist and curator. Would you be willing to display work like Latham's if it were offered to you? Would you state here that you'd even go so far as to seek out such work? I have to be perfectly honest with you and say the thought would frighten me more than a little. I'd be more than happy to open my mouth in criticism of the Tate if I were more certain I'd act differently. It's child's play nowadays to make a straightjacket out of the US flag or throw a crucifix in the toilet. Artists have been burning flags and desecrating Christian symbols for generations. They practically hold evening classes on how to do it at the local civic centers. But Islamic symbols? Easier said than done. If you're willing to make a statement of support more tangible than criticizing the Tate, you might start a positive backlash that has a beneficial effect. This is not meant to criticize you, but to say I think everyone is afraid to take the first step, including (and possibly especially) moderate Muslims, so if you have strong feelings on the matter, and if you're in a position to take physical action, you might bring about better results through a targetted and specific public act than through a critical blog entry.

9/27/2005 09:19:00 PM  
Anonymous sarah said...

Henry, great comment. But do realize that such an act--the choice whether or not to remove such an object from an institutional exhibition--would not lie solely with the curator. Whether or not Edward would act differently as an individual would matter much less, I think, if he were acting on behalf of an institution. Regardless, you make some potent suggestions in regards to the treatment of Christian vs. Muslim symbols and relics. What if this exhibition took place on American soil? How would that alter the equation?

9/27/2005 09:43:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


I'm not sure if you've ever followed my writing on the political blogs I write for, but I have repeatedly gone to great lengths to stand up for Muslims when they're right and criticize them very bluntly when they're wrong. I would show the same conviction in exhibiting work in my gallery.

Thing is, I have a rather large circle of very close Muslim friends (including my domestic partner). I don't expect any less of them in these regards than I do my nonMuslim friends, and should a political work of art in our space raise controversy and confusion, we would listen to those who were offended, just like the Tate has, but we would close the gallery before we would bow to pressure on a piece we believed in. In other words, we curate in our space, no one else. If the Tate were not sure of the piece when they bought it, they should have bought something else.

I see taking the piece out as cowardice. If they are right now...they were wrong when they bought it. The piece hasn't changed.

9/27/2005 10:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Sarah - I don't think anywhere is immune from this fear. That's why they call it "terror." The Los Angeles Times reports that Sony Pictures has refused to release an Albert Brooks film called "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World." [link] As long as the art community is more interested in sewing straightjackets out of U.S. flags, I don't think anyone is going to know the answer to your question. Please forgive my cynical comment, but maybe when there's a Democrat in the White House, the art community will discover human rights abuses are committed by entities other than Halliburton.

Edward - I agree with you, the Tate acted out of fear. I'll remind you that the operative word is "terror."

What really disappoints me is that the Tate is being blamed for being the victim of a terror campaign. Imagine telling the shop-owner down the street he's a coward because he has his garbage collected by the mafia-controlled company, or a woman she's a coward for not walking into a men's bar. Don't you think the object of your scorn should be the mafia, not the shop-owner; the men, not the woman?

I recognize the Tate didn't actually ask any Muslims, but on the other hand, I don't think the Tate's fears are being mitigated by any tangible support. They're receiving plenty of righteous criticism, but I haven't heard anyone volunteer to host an exhibit of Latham's work.

With sincere respect for my generous and thoughtful host (I do greatly enjoy this blog and your opinions), I doubt imams read tacitus. They'd be more likely to target a Brooklyn gallery than its curator's online rhetoric. This is why I wondered if you'd be willing to translate this discussion into physical acts. There are any number of moth-eaten cliches which address the difference between words and acts.

I'd rather avoid arguments of the form "some of my best friends are ________," but when one of my good Muslim friends told me he thought moderate Muslims needed to stick together, I asked, don't you need to do more than just that?

These times call for active countermeasures. Millions cry loudly over subtleties like drawing centers and patriot acts in a country where women can bear their breasts and scream half-nude at the most powerful man in the world, yet I've not heard these self-appointed bastions of freedom and liberty make a single comment in the past 5 years about the repulsive and reprehensible thought control that exists in other cultures. It's called picking easy targets, and it's nothing to be proud of.

BTW, given the geographic pattern of the London bombings, there's a well-regarded train of thought that the target of the terror campaign was not London at large, but its Muslim sub-population. The fear is universal.

9/27/2005 11:54:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

What really disappoints me is that the Tate is being blamed for being the victim of a terror campaign.

I don't see them as victims, though, Henry. There are two groups of people we call "victims" but only one actually are such, imo: those who have something done directly to them. Letting fear of such actions change your response to something unrelated or only tangentially related makes you a coward, not a victim.

I truly believe the only response worthy of any respect is defiance. That doesn't mean you're stupid. The museum could increase security (as they probably should have after the bombings anyway). They could have recontextualized the piece with text, to help viewers understand they're aware of the potential for misunderstanding. They could have invited the artist and critics to participate in a panel discussion, to let the community air their differences. None of this would have made them cowards. To simply remove the piece does.

I've not heard these self-appointed bastions of freedom and liberty make a single comment in the past 5 years about the repulsive and reprehensible thought control that exists in other cultures.

I'm not sure you can generalize across the board like that, but I actually respect those who would challenge their own government to improve more than I do those who will ignore their government's failings and call on other people's governments to change. The chatter I hear about why no matter what our government does, at least we're not as bad as the mullahs, as if that there a standard to be proud of, drives me around the bend. The Saudi's, for example, need to stand up to the injustices in their system, and we need to support them in that, as much as we can, but that in no way lessens our responsibility to stand up to our home-grown injustices and thereby set an example the Saudi's can look to and follow. Our shouting about the House of Saud's abuses comes off as arrogant and hypocritical when we're far from perfect ourselves. In other words, we do much more to change the world, when we lead by good example.

The fear is universal.

No, it's not. Look to Spain. The response to the bombings in Madrid was for 1 million people to fill the streets in defiance. To send the message they the citizens own that city, not the terrorists. In New York, as well, you had people standing up to help each other and declaring they would not be cowered by nightfall on 9/11. They proved it by standing firm, accepting all the inconveniences stoicly (sp?), and rebuilding their destroyed businesses. Sure some people left the city out of fear, but others of us would live no where else and even though it was scary when the anthrax scare started and we flinched each time a plane flew overhead, we didn't give into fear and accept that by surrendering our liberties we'd be more safe. We told the President and his party in no uncertain terms that we resented their willful exploitation of the 9/11 attack to launch their pre-planned war on Iraq. That message means more coming from the people in the city that was attacked than it does from anyone else, IMO.

9/28/2005 07:34:00 AM  
Blogger Joseph Barbaccia said...

In a backhanded way, by removing Latham's piece, the Tate has brought much more attention to it than by just letting it be. In a different vein years ago, the same thing occurred with the Sensation show in NYC. Censorship fails because it only serves to create an informational vacuum to which all our attention turns. Censorship is all about fear. Perhaps what should replace Latham's work in that spot is something that describes or justifies the Tate's actions. That would kick up even more dust.

9/28/2005 08:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Kriston said...

Henry, you're railing against an unfair but familiar strawman in this thread by citing the "blame America first" argument. It's really not evident that, by criticizing the Tate for their reaction to a perceived threat, those who criticize the Tate are in some sense not objecting to terrorism. Of course there would be little issue if there were not terrorists. And I assure you that Edward, Sarah, and others are as horrified by terrorist atrocities as you are.

But the fact remains that as Westerners, and especially Westerners who are tied to the arts, we feel that arts institutions are in a real sense obligated to us in the way that imams are not. For certain, if I were given real opportunity to curb the proliferation of Muslim radicalism or curb the Tate's cowardly tendencies, I'd do the former.

But I certainly don't occupy that kind of space. I do feel like I can possibly have some (extremely marginal) impact on the way that art institutions respond to threats. I would have demanded that any bookstore I were to patronize carry Satanic Verses when booksellers were facing that pressure. And an advocacy for strong arts doesn't preclude me from advocating the "active countermeasures" you prescribe. Certainly I think that psychological resistance to the tactics of terror is an active countermeasure to terrorism.

9/28/2005 11:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Kriston - I must not have made myself clear. I find nothing to be proud of in pushing the Tate to the front of the queue, and telling them "go ahead and tweak the imam's nose, I'll stay here and force you to fulfill your 'obligation' to me."

If I were a bookstore owner and you "demanded" I sell The Satanic Verses at a time of strife, I would ask you why I should put myself in harm's way unless you were willing to, for example, help me by standing vigil at my store.

I'm not asking you to "advocate the 'active countermeasures'," I'm asking you to undertake them. Psychological resistence is not an active countermeasure. That's just about as passive as the dictionary allows. Arranging a gallery space, however, and displaying a series of John Latham works is.

I'm loath to demand anyone do any of this; I merely point out that I think anything short isn't going to benefit anyone, and I'm wholly unconvinced by arguments that the Tate is "obligated" to do any such thing.

I'm not sure what you took from my arguments against the "blame america first" crowd; I was merely trying to point out that, given the choice between attacking an easy target (Pres Bush, Abu Ghraib, etc) and a hard target (murderous islamofascists), I'm not impressed by those who choose the easy targets -- in fact I think the louder they protest the former, the more I wonder why their energy is not directed at the latter -- and I think there's an enormous double-standard at play.

At least Botero was honest about it. In the Art Newspaper a while ago, he said, in so many words, that he considered America to be the civilized party, and therefore criticized only them. Unsaid, unspoken and unquestioned is his implicit assertion that the other side does not even rise to the level of modern human standards. Like I said, at least he was honest about it.

Someone here may know about Nasreddin Hodja. He was looking on the sidewalk for a ring he'd lost. When someone asked where he originally lost it, he pointed inside and said, "in there; but the light out here is better." That's the only point I'm trying to make about the various protesters. It's easy to protest where the "light is good." We need to protest where it's still dark.

9/28/2005 06:44:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

how are you doing that Henry?

9/28/2005 09:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Edward - I'm not doing anything. I admitted to you up above that I'm one of the fearful. I told Kriston that I'm loath to make demands of anyone in the Tate's situation. Because I'm myself unwilling, I don't want to force anyone to do what I myself cannot. But I also cannot accept that anyone should call the Tate cowardly, or demand they oblige me, if the complainant is in no more willing to take a specific action than I.

That is the entirety of my argument on this page. I'm fearful, I'm not doing anything, and I don't allow myself to criticize the Tate or demand they are obligated to me. I also don't think my willingness to be psychologically uncowed by terrorists is any different than watching a hero movie and saying "I'd do that if I were in that position." I have yet to see anyone else take more than a rhetorical position, and my most powerful argument to those people is: You're no different than me.

The next question is whether I would attend or promote an exhibit of John Latham's work if it were established. I would like to think I would -- I certainly hope I would -- but I would need to be tested on this point, and I'm not going to make armchair statements about it.

9/29/2005 12:00:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm sorry Henry, but I can't live my life in fear. It's one thing for an individual to be fearful, but altogether something else for an institution to be so.

I've spent quite a few bob at the Tate over the years and so I feel right criticizing them. They have meant something to me and I resent their decision here. It makes me want my money back.

It's not parallel, whether I would exhibit Latham or not (not, I don't like his work). What's parallel is whether I would let someone else dictate what I exhibit. The answer to that is a definite no.

9/29/2005 07:57:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

More to the point...THIS is what I'm talking about. Art, above all other human endeavors, has a responsibility not to cater to fear.

9/29/2005 08:28:00 AM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear Edward,

You are to be commended for daring to post this opinion.

For those who might be interested, I have posted a lengthy response on my blog: http://blackcatbone.blogspot.com/2005/09/piss-mohammed-to-appear-at-tate-modern.html

I glad to know that others have the courage to speak out on this subject.


James W. Bailey

9/29/2005 12:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Edward - When you're given the opportunity to display a work controversial to fundamentalist Muslims, and when you give "a definite yes" to it, you will have my unquestioned support and admiration. Until that day I hope you will please forgive my lingering doubts. Could you be convinced to actively seek out such work?

9/29/2005 02:34:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Could you be convinced to actively seek out such work?

That's a fair question.

The answer is no, though.

I detest that approach to curating...seeking out controversy. I believe in working with artists who have a vision I find interesting. If that vision turns controversial, that's OK, I'll support it.

But to court controversy is cheap, IMO.

the only thing cheaper, though, is to cave into pressure and leave an artist you otherwise supported hanging out there, like the Tate did to Latham.

9/29/2005 02:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Kriston said...

If I were a bookstore owner and you "demanded" I sell The Satanic Verses at a time of strife, I would ask you why I should put myself in harm's way unless you were willing to, for example, help me by standing vigil at my store.

Because if the bookstores bow to the threat of violence, then that threat (having been proven successful) proliferates.

I do agree with a point I think you're making—that it is something else to ask bookstore clerks to face down an angry mob. I wouldn't ask individuals to behave by my standards, but I think it is appropriate to demand (yes, demand) that bookstores or bookstore megachains or museums enact certain policies or risk losing my business (or patronage).

And the degree to which I feel licensed to make this demand scales with the authority of the institution. Let me clarify that: The Tate speaks for others beyond the employees who physically operate the space. It is important that institutions that stand as the public faces of our culture be brave.

I was merely trying to point out that, given the choice between attacking an easy target (Pres Bush, Abu Ghraib, etc) and a hard target (murderous islamofascists), I'm not impressed by those who choose the easy targets -- in fact I think the louder they protest the former, the more I wonder why their energy is not directed at the latter -- and I think there's an enormous double-standard at play.

Here I think we disagree. I believe that it requires little moral courage to condemn murder, terrorist violence, etc. The idea that one can in some sense protest a murder is nonsensical. I do think that quibbling over the finer points of our democracies and democratic institutions is important work that often involves people of great courage.

You may take my comment to mean that I don't care about terrorist murders, that they don't horrify me, or that I think nothing should be done about them. Nothing could be further from the truth. I just don't think that protesting terrorism will solve anything. Pointing out that the 9/11 attacks were awful is somewhat pointless because it's explicitly clear to civilized people that the attacks were awful.

On the other hand, pointing out that some Western institution's instinct about liberalism and artistic expression is wrong is important work because it's not necessarily clear to everyone that the institution is behaving poorly. I don't think that qualifies as a double standard, because those are very different things being judged by very different criteria in very different contexts.

I think the point you're making (vis-a-vis "easy" and "hard" targets) is that by criticizing the Tate and not criticizing murder, one shows that one's moral priority is with correcting the Tate and not with preventing the murder. This is not right. Of course preventing murders or terrorism takes the moral priority—this is assumed to be a shared view among the community. One would be very surprised to see, for example, a commenter say to Edward, "Well, that's an interesting point, yadda yadda, but one way to solve the question is to blow up the Tate." Or: "This question is very pressing, Edward. Why does the MSM insist on telling us about the soldiers who died in Iraq today when the Tate is censoring an artist?" Views so horrifingly far outside the maintstream don't warrant countenance from Edward in his post—that doesn't mean that Edward doesn't believe that terrorism is unjustifiable.

(Apologies, Edward, if I'm putting words in your mouth here.)

9/29/2005 11:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Kriston said...

A quick, final point: Helping to craft (in very minor ways) the public argument about how we should respond to terrorism—as individuals and through our institutions and government—seems like the best option available to me to curb Islamofascist terrorism, which I condemn.

9/29/2005 11:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Kriston - Thanks for the detailed response, but I'll confess I'm having a hard time following your argument. I totally agree with you when you say, "I believe that it requires little moral courage to condemn murder, terrorist violence, etc." My confusion arises because I think this is the point I myself am trying to make.

I would equate criticism of the Tate with the condemnations you mention. In fact I'd say it takes even less moral courage to criticize the Tate or "demand" anything of a bookstore owner than to criticize murder, as it's less likely the Tate or the bookstore owner will murder you for opening your mouth.

In fact I'm going further, and I'm saying it's outright immoral to criticize the Tate or make a demand of a bookstore owner, because I think what you're doing is pushing the organization into the line of fire without showing a willingness to stand by them in any more than a passive manner.

I liken terrorists to the mafia. I think the parallel is unmistakable. I could never allow myself to tell a store owner he has to "stand up to the mafia." The store-owner's response to me would be unprintable in a respectable blog, and justifiably so. (Funny, and more than a bit upsetting to me, that we are more conditioned to fear the "mafia" than the "Islamic terrorist.")

If we want the Tate to display controversial works -- which I agree is an excellent goal -- and if we want bookstore owners to carry controversial books -- I myself own the book you mentioned -- we as citizens have two responsibilities: (1) seek out and support entities which do these things, and (2) assure entities which are reluctant to do so that we will stand with them in more than a lip-service manner.

I find it unconvincing at best, even immoral at worst, for someone to condemn the Tate when his life has never even passed within 30,000 feet of this type of decision.

In the western world today it seems everyone has moral authority over everyone else -- the GOP has its moral issues, the liberals have theirs, and both are just as ideological and uncompromising as the other -- but few actually take action.

Liberals made great hay when Bill Bennett admitted his gambling habit despite his public career built on teaching morality. If Bennett is not allowed to lecture on a type of morality he cannot demonstrate, why should anyone else?

I take your point that you believe crafting the public response is the best you can do, but with respect I disagree. As the proprietor of a public website, you have the opportunity to display works of art on your blog. You have every opportunity to display "Piss Mohammed" or its equivalents on your site. I understand that you're willing to criticize others for not displaying works of art which take the Quran lightly, but forgive me for saying that unless you yourself do it, I don't see any moral courage in your actions.

9/30/2005 11:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Kriston said...

Henry, I think you and I are talking about different things.

I would agree that in your example of the local shopowner and the mafia; it does not take conviction to criticize that shopowner for not putting himself in harm's way. This example, though, does not precisely parallel the other examples we are discussing. It's important to make a distinction between what we ask of public entities and private individuals.

Militant Islamofascists are not demanding tribute. They demand the suppression of certain kinds of behavior and information that are sanctioned by Western values. In the examples that I cite, it is institutions that are processing this demand—not individuals. When Barnes and Noble pulled _Satanic Verses_ from its shelves, it sent a resounding message to the suppressors that the tactics of intimidation were useful and efficient against American institutions. I think that we as citizens have a responsibility to use the dollar and the vote to present the best front that we can against terrorist organizations, lest we let extremists dictate to us what we may read or exhibit in our museums.

Now, that said, I would not disparage any employee for seeking other employment because the bookstore has decided not to appease its extremist critics. I would not disparage an art viewer for staying away from the Tate while it displayed such controversial art. I certainly could not judge any member of an institution for making a decision about his welfare, but institutions themselves—that's different. The Tate speaks for more than its employees. It speaks for Britain.

I definitely support institutions who make decisions that I admire (and really, I must say, shame on you for presuming that you know how I spend my time or money!). To be sure, I write about both religious intolerance and art and its social obligations, both for my blog and the political group blog to which I contribute. My point was that by writing about art and by having, for example, this discussion, we help (in small ways) to craft the "public response" that I mentioned.

Again, you are making a maximalist categorical error by stipulating that, in order for the Tate's critics to criticize the Tate for not taking some action, they must first take that action themselves. The fact is that I cannot take on some proportionate burden of the potential risk to the Tate—as a private citizen I am not in the category of the Tate. Your baseline criteria seems to be that someone has the right to speak up once she has taken on that risk burden herself, but this is not really possible for private citizens. But because the actions of massive institutions have great bearing on the lives of private citizens—and because private citizens enable large institutions—the institutions are beholden to the citizenry. In other words, this is an asymmetrical relationship that you are trying to make symmetrical.

9/30/2005 02:32:00 PM  

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