Ho hum. Yet another transgressive artist has signaled his creativity by joining the queue of aesthetes employing and cashing in on a 12-yearold boy’s categories of impiety:
ROME–An Italian museum on Thursday defied Pope Benedict and refused to remove a modern art sculpture portraying a crucified green frog holding a beer mug and an egg that the Vatican had condemned as blasphemous.
More ho than hum, it turns out. The defense of the exhibit, in keeping with the oeuvre itself, is conventionally meretricious:
The board of the Museion museum in the northern city of Bolzano decided by a majority vote that the frog was a work of art and would stay in place for the remainder of an exhibition.
Ars longa, comrades, VISA brevis.
Three years ago Mark Steyn, writing for National Review, gave a pointed analysis of the double standard used in dealing with religious sensibilities. It’s worth quoting at length:
The rules for this sort of thing are well known. Last year, an old leftie Scots pal of mine, Alistair Beaton, wrote an anti-war “satire” which included Bush and Blair singing “We’re Sending You a Cluster Bomb from Jesus.” Ha-ha. Alistair’s play opened at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in England and did boffo biz. In his merciless evisceration of Bush-Blair and the radical Christian threat to world peace, Alistair was operating in the tradition of bold, courageous, transgressive artists without whom a free society cannot survive. And happily, crazy as they are, these Christian fundamentalist types don’t tend to be waiting for you at the stage door. Whereas, if you write, “We’re Sending You a Schoolgirl Bomb from Allah,” you attract a somewhat livelier crowd, and it’s hard to pick up showbiz awards for your boldness, courage, transgressiveness, etc., when you’re six feet under. Ask Theo van Gogh. As a rule, if you’re going to be “provocative,” it’s best to do it with people who can’t be provoked.
Journalists understand this, too. When Christians get hot and bothered about a horny Jesus (The Last Temptation of Christ), a gay Jesus (Terrence Mc- Nally’s Broadway play Corpus Christi), or a Jesus floating in the artist’s urine (Piss Christ), columnists take to the barricades to champion the cause of free speech. When Muslim groups closed down a play in Cleveland because its revolting apologia for a Palestinian suicide bomber was insuffi ciently pro- Muslim, the silence of the media lambs was deafening.
Antagonism to Christianity has come to be taken for granted among fashionable artists, as among the glitterati that support them, to the point that it’s hard to imagine an exhibition of contemporary work (outside the ghetto) executed in celebration of Christian themes. But this very hostility pays a left-handed compliment—two compliments, in fact—to the Christians who are its targets. On the one hand, as Steyn points out, the insouciance with which artists taunt Christians with sacrilege shows they don’t fear violent retaliation— indeed they fear no palpable retaliation at all; that means they performatively concede that fervent God-fearing Christians are as good as their commitments. On the other hand, the Christian claims must have some potent moral force even with the worldling artistes in order to be rejected with so much vehemence. You don’t devote yourself to the construction of elaborate assaults against fantasies you find boring and irrelevant. Christ’s teachings still have their sting, even when rejected.
In point of fact, the plastic frog of the Bolzano museum mockery, and the contempt that employed it, have very ancient precedents. What is purportedly the oldest known image of the crucifx is a graffito scrawled into a the wall of an excavated guardroom near Rome’s Circus Maximus; it’s usually dated to around 200 AD. It shows a man standing beside a crucified figure with a head of a donkey, and (in shaky Greek) the words “Alexamenos worships (his) God.” In mocking the Christian Alexamenos, the anonymous graffitist is a spiritual forebear of the Andres Serranos and Steve Rosenthals and Martin Kippenbergers of our own day. The paradox is that in each case their malice backfires, and eventually comes to bolster the piety it sets out to belittle. Today the Alexamenos graffito is treasured by Christians; it is a testimony to an embattled faith. Were it to be defaced or destroyed it is believers, not sneering heathen, who would mourn the loss. It’s not impossible that the Bolzano Imposture might be accorded a similar value two millennia from now.
Blasphemy never fully attains its goal, because it never takes the full measure of its object. There’s something poignant in the theological misunderstanding betrayed by the attempt to mock Jesus as a crucified donkey or frog. The crucifixion itself was a humiliation, a humiliation Christ willingly embraced (“He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross”). To trick out the crucified one as a figure of ridicule confirms rather than undercuts the Christian understanding of the event.
A century and a half before the Alexamenos graffitist St. Paul had already instructed us that the crucifixion was folly to the Greeks. Pagan mockery proves his point. Perhaps this is why Jesus taught “Whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him.” It’s not the Son of Man who’s diminished by blasphemy, but his assailant.