Discussing Islam Too Hot for Western Art Institutions?
We've gone rounds here on whether institutions are disserving the public by caving into fear of retribution when work that might be seen as offensive to Muslims is considered for exhibition. One reader on that other thread even went so far as to suggest that only by going out and seeking work that stands an equal chance of offending Muslims do I earn the right to criticize such reversals. I disagree, but did eventually admit that should strong enough evidence be presented to me after I had decided to exhibit such work that doing so would represent a significant threat to our visitors, staff, or artist, I would reconsider. The more I think about it now, though, the more I'm certain I'd rather close the gallery than change the exhibition.
Now in the political blogosphere I'm fairly well known for blasting any even remotely biased anti-Muslim rhetoric, and I'll most certainly do so in the future, but I'm personally sick and tired of Western art institutions getting this so spectaculary wrong. If you're going to scrap exhibitions for fear of offending Muslims, you MUST, MUST, MUST also scrap exhibitions for fear of offending Christians (e.g, the Offili piece in the "Sensation" exhibition), or Jews, or Buddhists, or whomever. Full stop. It doesn't matter if they're less likely to resort to violence in their protests, the only honorable rationale for censoring work that critiques Islam is that you, as an institution, consider all religion off bounds.
There are two important reasons I insist upon that. First and foremost is my belief in freedom of expression. Without getting into whether Schneider's piece is important enough or not to exhibit (clearly at one point the authorities in both Venice and Berlin thought it was), such actions send a chilling message to artists about what they should or shouldn't explore. It's one thing for the art establishment to never recognize a piece as valuable, but another altogether to say, essentially, "Yeah, it's good, but we're too scared to exhibit it." That leaves the artist hanging out there, by themselves, without support to continue their exploration. And in that way, it's shameful.
Secondly, however, such reversals only encourage the nutjobs. Really. What's next? Caving in and not screening movies in public that might offend extremist Muslims? Discouraging Western women from wearing clothing in public that might offend extremist Muslims? Disguising churches or synagouges to prevent that architecture from offending extremist Muslims passing by? Seriously. Where the hell does it end?
Being human means sometimes being offended. The vast majority of Muslims living in the West fully understand that. Caving in to the criminals who are looking for anything to react against only serves to strengthen them. And I mean caving in by the imams and Muslim community leaders here, who I suspect were the ones who approached the Berlin authorities and convinced them the work might incite violence. Why the hell they weren't back in their communities preventing such violence instead is a good question.
When Christians in New York (including the mayor) strongly objected to the exhibiting of Offili's "Madonna" painting at the Brooklyn Museum, the museum responded by tightening security and sticking to their convictions. In other words, they acted like the community authorities on art we expected them to be.
The Venice and Berlin authorities should have done the same thing.
UPDATE: Tyler Green points us to a reason to be optimistic on this front: the upcoming exhibition at MoMA (Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking ) that looks, in part, at a spectrum of contemporary Muslim artists, including the Mona Hatoum, Shirin Neshat, and Shahzia Sikander.