Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Fine Line Between Satirical Humor and Gratuitous Obscenity (and the hypocrisy that comes with it)

"Immersion (Piss Christ)", by Andres Serrano

In 1987, American artist and photographer Andres Serrano unveiled his latest portrait to the public which was basically an enlarged photo featuring a small, plastic Roman Catholic crucifix submerged in a glass of his own urine. The title of Serrano's portrait---"Immersion (Piss Christ)"---proved to be as controversial as the image itself, and it created a firestorm of outrage from Catholics and Protestants alike. 
Many within the Christian community (including many Christian conservatives in the United States) accused Serrano of promoting sacrilege, heresy and even Satanism because of his portrait. What made all of the outrage so ironic is that Serrano's inspiration for the portrait was his own anger at those within the Christian faith whom he believed had made Jesus seem less like a genuine redeemer and more like an imaginary figure of tyranny and commercialism. 

In the Summer of 1977, the British punk rock band known as the Sex Pistols released a single during Queen Elizabeth's 25th anniversary on the throne entitled "God Save the Queen", which criticized loyalty to the British monarchy. The song created such outrage among conservative British nationalists after its release that both the members of the Sex Pistols and their manager Malcolm McLaren were forced into temporary exile by the end of the year.
At this point, McLaren himself was already notorious for being the co-owner of a clothing boutique in London's King's Road District called "Sex", which specialized in sex-oriented attire, along with customized clothing designed by his business partner Vivienne Westwood. The clothing store became a popular hangout for many young people in London during the mid-1970s, including some who would go on to start what became the punk movement in London's West End.

How's this for an advertising gimmick?: fashion designer Vivienne
 Westwood (center-right) and fellow employees at "Sex" in 
London mooning the camera in 1976.

The punk movement was, in essence, a blatant rejection of all forms of authoritarian conformity in the U.K. at the time. Bands like the Sex Pistols and The Clash would reflect the attitude that was felt by many within the punk movement who believed that anything was better for the U.K. than what mainstream Brits considered as acceptable or even tolerable.

Promotional ad for "God Save the Queen" (1977)

But of all the punk rock bands in the U.K., the Sex Pistols were the most popular and the most controversial by the time "God Save the Queen" was released during the celebration of Her Majesty's Silver Jubilee in 1977, thus making them the biggest targets of scorn and ridicule by the British mainstream. Two of the band's members (vocalist Johnny Rotten and drummer Paul Cook) were violently attacked, and McLaren would end up being charged with resisting arrest during a concert promoting "God Save the Queen" on board a small yacht sailing along the Thames River.

Within a year after the release of "God Save the Queen", the Sex Pistols would break up immediately following a brief tour of the United States. The punk movement itself would end up becoming less of a threat and more of a novelty in British society as the years progressed. This would prove to be nothing more than another victory for the Monarchy and the conformists who support it.

But perhaps the most controversial example of blatant non-conformity in recent history came in the form of a popular magazine published in Paris, France called "Charlie Hebdo". This particular publication features artwork and commentary which ridicules and criticizes any and every aspect of Western culture. From politics to religion, nothing was considered sacred or out of bounds as far as the editors, writers and artists at "Charlie" were concerned. 
Like Andres Serrano in 1987 and the Sex Pistols ten years earlier, the artists, writers and editors of "Charlie Hebdo" had received their fair share of scathing criticism by those within the French conservative mainstream for their non-conformist views. And like "Immersion (Piss Christ)" in the U.S. and "God Save the Queen" in the U.K., "Charlie Hebdo" attracted a generation of people in France who believed that they were disenfranchised by those within mainstream French society and were fed up with having to choose conformity over individuality.

However, the one particular group of people who were most offended by the publication of "Charlie" were radical Islamic extremists because of the magazine's portrayal of the Muslim prophet Muhammad by artists and journalists who worked for the publication. I refuse to post such cartoon images or commentaries from "Charlie Hebdo" which feature the prophet Muhammad in them because of the fact that both the artwork and the statements are genuinely tasteless, vulgar and inflammatory. While I do believe in free speech and freedom of expression, I also believe that all religions should be respected equally.
What I will state in regards to the artwork and commentary featured in "Charlie" is this: On the one hand, it isn't too difficult to understand why a certain percentage of Jews, Muslims and Christians would find this magazine so offensive towards their religious beliefs. On the other hand, I personally don't understand how committing acts of unspeakable violence against the employees of a publication like "Charlie" does anything more than justify the writers' and artists' views on religious extremism within that publication.

There are two opposing thoughts that I will end this post with, and then I will leave it to the reader to decide which thought makes the most sense... 

The first thought comes from an old saying where I once lived: "If you stir up a nest of hornets, you're only asking to get stung". 

The second thought comes from another old saying: "If something makes you want to kill or die in the name of your cause, then why should your cause be considered as something worth living for?"

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