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 Pope is angry. Benedict XVI has written a letter to the President of the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy (in the northeast, above Venice), Mr. Franz Pahl, to complain about an art exhibit at the local city museum. Pahl already had a problem with that same exhibit, and he went on a hunger strike during the summer, threatening not to seek reelection (oh boy!) if a particular statue was not removed by the museum curators.

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.


  1. Don't fall down a slippery slope here, as I am sure you are aware, certain forms of speech need to be censored in a free society. That is, a society in which a free market can operate best.

    I'm pretty sure that there are 5 forms of UNprotected speech.

    The unfortunate case is that one of these is 'obscenity'. The other four make sense. False advertising would limit the extent to which you would have a voluntary exchange. Libel and slander only damage, as they are assumed false in principle. Fighting words and riot words are also against the law.

    But I do agree that being 'offensive', as long as you aren't committing acts of libel, slander, or 'fighting words', are perfectly okay legally. That doesn't mean I'll call every fat woman fat to her face, but it most certainly shouldn't be illegal.

    And MOST importantly, the direct criticism of any thought or belief ought to be openly accepted and never squelched in a society of free thought.

  2. Nick, libnel, slander, and fasle advertising aren't offensive; they're UNTRUE. Free speech is not offended, or even endangered, by lies--but truth is. False advertising, slander, and libel need to be illegal because the state has a duty to maintain truth, not opinion. If only the Catholic Church, etc., would come forward and submit themselves to the same rigorous tests of truth that science demands; now that would be truly amusing...

  3. According to the Corriere della Sera, the entire event was politically motivated. It seems Bolzano is in the middle of an election battle, and someone was hoping that making a "stink" about this artwork would win conservative Catholic votes.

    They also say that Kippenberger "claimed that he was making a statement against the hypocrisy of those who look at appearances and not substance. That, according to the artist, was the deeper meaning of the frog on the cross."

    It is interesting to note that the museum has chosen to ignore the Pope's letter and let the artwork remain on display until its scheduled removal.al1

  4. And really, what is the big deal?

    Maybe frogs need a savior to die on the cross so all can go to froggy heaven? Who are they to say it isn't true?

    But seriously I don't really understand how can it really be all that offensive?

    I can undertand to a certain degree that the desecration of the eucharist controversy was offensive to religous fanatics, but this? That cute little froggy on a cross? Please!

    I like him! I have saved the picture to my hard drive.

    That froggy that suffered so greatly for my sins is my saviour! Better to go to froggy heaven than the human heaven with the likes of Cal, Falwell, and Bill Donahue!

  5. Sheldon, Falwell and Donohue can't possibly both go to Heaven, as they each accuse the other of not being a "true Xian"...

  6. Kimpatsu,
    Yeah, I know. Also there has been numerous times when Cal has lectured us on who is not a real Christian as well. "No true Scottman eat his porridge...."

    Thats why I prefer Froggy Heaven!

  7. Kermit save us all!

    Seriously now (haha).

    Don't fall down a slippery slope here, as I am sure you are aware, certain forms of speech need to be censored in a free society.

    I think there's an important distinction to be made here, Nick. Maybe it's just nitpicking, and maybe you used words in a different way than what I'm thinking, but here we go.

    There are NO forms of speech that need to be censored, and there should never be, I suspect (I'm happy to be given examples to the contrary). Punished if found to be against one of the laws you mention, yes. But not censored -- censorship is avoiding the publication of something before most people can see it. That should not be done, I think? What you can do is punish whomever published something found to be slander, libel, etc. Otherwise, we'd have to have committees to read and watch everything under the sun and determine, in private, what can or cannot be published. That's how it was in Brazil during the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, and we still suffer from that, for people's mentality got adjusted to that modus operandi and we see it rear its ugly head every now and then.

  8. A similar case happened recently in Brasil: some Institute (and a priest) sued the Brazilian Playboy magazine because one of the models was posing with a crucifix in last week edition. How the pious plaintiffs knew about the crucifix is a mystery.
    What the cases have in common (more than the cross) is that they are both examples of the Streisand Effect.

    And until recently I believed that the catholic church was against the idolatry of images...

    To complement j.'s comment, in Brasil we have "restrictions to free speech" (anonymity, hate speech, discriminatory speech, defamation are forbidden), and censorship to some forms of propaganda in electoral years. But I believe the worst form is the self-censorship ("censura prévia"), partly because of the "limitations" on free speech which make it easy to bring to court any quarrel you have with your disaffects.

  9. Dr Piggliucci, have you read "One hundred years of solitude" from the colombian writer Gabriel García Marques? In this wonderful story (highly recommended) there is talk of a very pious lady who gets married and gets advice from her confessor on which days she is allowed to have sex. After accounting for all catholic holidays (you know ash wednesday, christmas, holy week, what have you) she tells her new husband that she has exactly 41 days a year in which she can have sex and their wedding night is NOT one of them.
    It may seem an exaggeration that the church will get in bed with the faithful but it does. The other day I ranted in my own blog (www.thechapinskeptic.info) about the Mexico DF Archdiocese telling women what to wear "to avoid sexual aggression". Just an example of the "overzelousness" of the priesthood.
    Me, I gave up on them long time ago and don't listen anymore to their cackling


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