About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Friday, August 29, 2008
The strange case of the crucified frog
The statue in question is entitled “Zuerst die Fuesse,” German for “First the Feet.” It is by artist Martin Kippenberger, who died in 1997 at age 43, and it represents a crucified frog holding an egg and a beer mug. Well, one can see how that might be offensive to the Pope and to Catholics in general, despite the museum’s reassurances that the sculpture has nothing to do with religion, and is instead an ironic self-portrait of the artist’s expression of angst.
Now, the frog may have been meant to represent Kippenberger (after all, he was German, and the frog holds a beer), but I don’t believe for a second that the sculpture has nothing to do with a criticism of religion. It is hard to imagine that Kippenberger was not thinking of Jesus when he crucified his frog and put a loincloth around its waist, or that he was simply not aware of Christian iconography.
But of course the point is that being offensive is no reason at all to censor art. Indeed, one could argue that the point of art is to challenge people’s perspectives, thereby carrying a high risk of being offensive. If the Pope and his Catholic flock don’t like it, they are by no means forced to go to the museum to see it. If Mr. Pahl doesn’t like it -- just like then Major Giuliani of New York didn’t appreciate the “Virgin with Elephant Dunk” exhibited by the Brooklyn Museum a few years ago -- he is most welcome to stop eating pasta and resign.
All of this should not, however, put the museum’s director in any kind of defensive position, trying to make up ridiculous explanations for why the art piece should not be offensive to one religious sect or another. I personally find the very existence of the Vatican state in the center of Italy and its seating (as an observer) at the United Nations offensive, but I am not calling for the thing to be shut down. I’m just waiting for a more enlightened world to come about, one where we don’t need sanctimonious “holy men” to tell us what to think, what art we can enjoy and how precisely we are supposed to have sex.
How would I feel if someone made an offensive caricature of whatever I hold sacred? Ah, but therein lies the difference between a religionist and an atheist: I don’t hold anything sacred. I do hold some things important, people I love and ideas I cherish, and I surely get upset when those people or ideas are under attack -- especially unfair attack. But one of the foremost principles I do cherish is precisely the right of anyone, anywhere, at any time, to speak her mind, regardless of how offensive it may be to others. Being offensive to people may not be nice, and it is certainly something that can easily be abused even in the name of a good cause. But it is a fundamental right in a democracy, without which the very concept of freedom of speech goes out the window. And once that happens, fascism is not far behind.