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Chapter Ten

When Blasphemy Came to Town

We have to live with the freedom of artistic expression. From time to time this will involve controversial displays, but it is not up to us to decide if anything should be excluded.

Dr Timothy Potts, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, quoted in The Age, October 8th, 1997


In 1974, I was working as a reporter on the Sunday Mercury, in the British industrial city of Birmingham. With summer approaching, my editors heard of a local vicar who was planning a mountaineering holiday in Iceland, and they resolved that it would make a pleasant colour piece for the paper.


Nowadays it seems that editors are interested only in church ministers who tragically become involved in paedophilic crime. But in those days the newspapers viewed the clergy as what most of them really are: hard-working, decent, compassionate men - and a growing number of women - who are struggling to help their parishioners maintain and deepen their faith in a rapidly changing world.


I was assigned the story, and accordingly phoned the churchman, who proved happy to tell me about his forthcoming vacation. The interview was going well until I, quite ignorant then about Christianity (or about any other religion), commented: “I suppose that being up high in the mountains makes you feel closer to God.”


I heard what sounded like a strangled cry at the other end of the phone, and then the man said, in a hard, deliberate voice: “That is blasphemy. God is everywhere.”


He was a Christian, so he did not slam down the receiver, but the rest of the interview was as icy as the mountains he was planning to climb.


What a difference a generation makes.


In 1997, the National Gallery of Victoria brought to Melbourne an exhibition of photographs by American artist Andres Serrano. Among the photos was the famous Piss Christ, a picture of a crucified Christ in a jar that was said to contain the artist’s urine.


Gallery officials knew this image was highly controversial. In material they prepared for the exhibition they said: “Piss Christ was torn up by a member of the US Senate enraged by its blasphemous nature….Serrano has always been provocative, pushing the boundaries between the sacred and the taboo, the acceptable and the pornographic.”


Yet they went ahead with the exhibition, and the ensuing row revealed with startling clarity the powerful antagonism many of those in positions of authority in Australia hold towards organised religion. It also showed the church to be virtually the only institution prepared to take a stand for traditional community values.


Before the exhibition, some politicians and church leaders had lobbied quietly to stop the Piss Christ display. The Gallery also received more than 800 letters opposing the showing of the work. When these efforts failed, the Catholic Church unsuccessfully sought a court injunction against the showing of the work, claiming it to be blasphemous.


The Director of the Gallery, Dr Timothy Potts, told The Age that to ban a photograph on the grounds of blasphemy was “an antiquated concept in a pluralistic society”. He went on: “There are many things in today’s society, such as divorce and birth control, that the church finds inappropriate. Why does it seem so much more serious when it occurs in the artistic arena?”


In the event, the Serrano exhibition enjoyed just a brief life. Only a few hours after the official opening a man tried to make off with the Piss Christ photograph. Then the following day two youths, one of them aged 16 (even though the Gallery had made much of the fact that it would not allow into the exhibition anyone under 18), distracted guards and damaged Piss Christ with a hammer.


The Gallery quickly cancelled the exhibition, and the press reported that there had been death threats made against Gallery officials. The Catholic and Anglican archbishops, Dr George Pell and Dr Keith Rayner, both condemned the violence used against the picture.


Yet according to The Age, the Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett:


accused church heads of lacking leadership by failing to condemn the vandalism and violence quickly….Mr Kennett broke away from business talks with Asian leaders in Hong Kong to attack the churches’ role….Although he stopped short of accusing church leaders of inciting the violence, he said the churches should demonstrate greater tolerance….“It’s almost the 21st century. I feel as though the church has thrown a boulder back in time….While [the violence] is certainly not the churches’ fault, I think the church—and not just the Catholic Church—could have been a lot more forthcoming in condemning the violence when it first occurred.”


Serrano, who had flown to Australia for the opening, branded Dr Potts “a coward and a loser” for cancelling the exhibition. Later in the week, still lingering in Melbourne, Serrano told The Age: “I want to stick around and watch Timothy burn a little. I think the more heat I put on him the better it is.”


Premier Kennett, still in Hong Kong, was forced to defend the Director: “I just say to Mr Serrano, ‘Thank you for coming, we’re sorry we’re not able to view the display of your work, now it’s probably time to go home.’ I’m trying to say that in the nicest possible way.”


It was a messy affair, and it might seem that no person or group came out of it well.



In Britain, 23 years earlier, when a mountaineering vicar accused me of blasphemy I thought him pompous. But what about when the church tries to ban an image of a crucified Christ in urine, claiming it offends against blasphemy laws (even though it remains unclear whether such laws are valid in Australia)?


A wise Christian lady once commented to me that thinking you need to defend God is like thinking you need to defend a lion. Both are able to look after themselves. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was deeply offensive to members of Australia’s Islamic community, but we did not ban the book, and I do not believe the church should have tried to invoke a dubious law such as that of blasphemy to try to stop the display of the picture. Indeed, blasphemy laws do not have a happy history. They have been used to put down all kinds of dissent.


Yet what else could have been done? Displaying the Piss Christ image at a public gallery struck at the deepest sensibilities of many ordinary Australians. However, the common view being expressed in the media was that we now live in a pluralistic society, and religious groups have no choice but to accept whatever an intellectual elite decides to place on public display. Church leaders, having failed to stop the exhibition through quiet lobbying, had been forced into a very tight corner.


So, can we learn anything from this episode? I believe we can.


The first lesson is the one I have been stressing throughout this book: that we can no longer rely on our public infrastructure to support our society.


Let us look at the historical role of the National Gallery of Victoria. It was opened in 1861. The initial collection, mainly reproductions of famous statues, and described as “objects of miscellaneous vertue [sic]”, was purchased in Britain with 2,000 pounds of public money. Unfortunately, it arrived in Melbourne so badly water-damaged that the Gallery was said to look like a field of battle. Yet within two months of the opening, the exhibits had attracted some 62,000 visitors.


One survey has noted that, “Unlike many galleries in Europe and the United States which were built upon the possessions of kings, aristocrats or millionaires, the origins of the institution in Melbourne were as humble as the young society which brought it into being.”


Ann Galbally, in a book on the Gallery, said that it,


was seen by its founding fathers…as providing through its collections a model of all that was thought best in earlier civilisations for the inspiration of the citizens of Melbourne….The arts, [the first trustees] felt, were important for society because they exerted a civilising and moral influence, and doubly important for Melbourne in the 1850s when it seemed that all such standards had come adrift in a city awash with gold money.


The Gallery was founded to serve the public of Victoria. Yet senior officials would seem to have been unmindful of this when they put on display an exhibition by an artist who, they said, pushed the artistic boundaries.



Artists have always pushed boundaries; that is in the nature of art, and our civilisation is the better for it. There are numerous private galleries, in Melbourne and in any other big city around the world, that will show such works. Eventually, most boundary pushers fade into deserved obscurity, while a few survive to exert a huge influence on the progress of art, eventually coming to be seen as mainstream.


But it is not the role of a great national gallery to offend a large section of the community with art that, in the Gallery’s own words, has a “blasphemous nature”, and by an artist who, again in the Gallery’s own words, “has always been provocative, pushing the boundaries between the sacred and the taboo, the acceptable and the pornographic.”


The National Gallery of Victoria has for a long time prided itself on being one of the world’s great galleries. It has, without doubt, exerted a huge influence on Melbourne’s culture. It has helped educate people in the city, introducing them to the best of other civilisations and to the best of our own. It has indeed been an impressive “civilising and moral influence”.


So, I was among many who were amazed when the Gallery announced it would display the inflammatory Piss Christ image, among other Serrano works, and even more surprised when, according to the quote at the head of this chapter, Dr Potts apparently told The Age that it was not up to the Gallery to decide if anything should be excluded.


When the Gallery took the decision to close the exhibition, after the attacks, the outcry was enormous. But there was not a lot of reasoned debate. Rather, many defenders of the Piss Christ exhibit lashed out at the church. So, it is important to reiterate the restraint and the dignity with which the church (mainly the Catholic Church) approached what was clearly an offensive work of art.


First of all, the church approached the Gallery and requested that Piss Christ should not be displayed. It sought intervention from politicians. Only when these quiet attempts failed did it seek a court injunction.


And it is important to understand what the church was calling for. It was asking that a work that was deeply offensive to many ordinary Australians should not be placed on display at a leading public institution. That is all.


What was it not calling for? The church was not calling for a ban on the photograph of a woman masturbating a horse, which was also included among the Serrano artworks. Nor was it calling for a ban on the photos of mutilated and partly decomposed bodies in a morgue, of still-born children, of a man’s ejaculate flying through the air, or of a woman urinating into a man’s mouth, all of which were also included in the National Gallery of Victoria exhibition. (Remember, this is the institution that was once seen as being a “civilising and moral influence” on our society).


Nor was the church objecting to the Piss Christ picture being displayed at a private gallery. As I have suggested already, that is the traditional and appropriate venue for boundary-pushing modern art. Indeed, a private gallery in Melbourne was showing, without incident, an exhibition of Serrano works at the same time as the National Gallery of Victoria exhibition (though the private gallery was not showing Piss Christ).


The church was simply requesting that a great public institution with a long and honourable tradition of service to the public should not give legitimacy to a work that so offended the deepest sensibilities of many ordinary Australians. When it lost in court, the church expressed regret but accepted the defeat with quiet dignity.


Yet when the Gallery closed the exhibition it was the church that came under attack, including from Premier Jeff Kennett, as already noted, and from many in the media.



The exhibition had been officially opened on a Saturday, and the first incident - an attempt to make off with the Piss Christ image - came just a few hours later. Then on the following day, a Sunday, two youths managed to damage the work. Dr Pell, saying he understood the “sense of outrage” that had prompted the attack, spoke out for “peaceful and legal protest only” on the Sunday, and on the Monday he condemned the violence.


Yet in an editorial that was, in my opinion, quite unfair, The Age did what it could to link the church to the attacks, all the while insisting that this was not what it was doing:


On Sunday, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr George Pell, produced a disappointingly muted response….This was not good enough. The attacks, by a 51-year-old man on Saturday and allegedly by a youth and a young man on Sunday, were the real outrage. They deserve nothing less than unreserved condemnation….It is incumbent now on the opponents of Piss Christ, including Dr Pell, to comprehend that indicating that they “understand” why these attacks have taken place only serves to underscore the need for limits in the discussion of such a controversial work. Unfortunately, too many of the opponents of Serrano have been unwilling to acknowledge that these limits are essential in a free and tolerant society. Dr Pell, and other church leaders who welcomed the closure of the exhibition, were needed to show leadership in this area and they were found wanting….The two acts of violence during the weekend were extreme extensions of the campaign against the work. While the church leaders and others who protested against the exhibition could not be expected to control directly the actions of partisans who felt it necessary to break the law, they must take some responsibility for creating the anti-Serrano ferment that led to the closure. In that sense, it was disappointing that Dr Pell and the other high-profile opponents of Serrano did not come out after the attacks and argue that, faced with a choice of artwork they judged offensive remaining in public view and acts of violence leading to its removal, the former would be far preferable to the latter.


The Age prides itself on being Melbourne’s quality daily newspaper. So, it was with shock that I read that editorial. I shall confine myself to just a few comments.


The first is that the editorialists would appear to have been so out of touch with our society that they believed church leaders had nothing better to do on a Sunday than to issue media statements, and argue with journalists about complex issues of censorship.


The editorial stated that in “a free and tolerant society” it is “essential” that there are limits to “the discussion of such a controversial work”. Please read that sentence several times and ponder its implications.


The Age is telling us that the Gallery’s intellectual elites are free to import an American image of the utmost provocation, one which offends the deepest sensibilities of many ordinary Australians. Yet when church leaders, using restraint, courtesy and tact, and working at all times within the law, try to have this image removed from display in a great public institution they are told that they must be restricted in what they say - because we live in a free and tolerant society.


This is junta-style, Orwellian double-speak. The editorialists are talking about power, not about free and tolerant societies.


And in passing, it is worth repeating that Dr Pell on the Monday, the day after the second attack, issued a strong condemnation of violence. This was reported in the news columns of The Age on Tuesday morning. Yet the editorial, also in Tuesday’s The Age, went to great efforts to make it seem that Dr Pell had not done so.


That church leaders did not vehemently protest against such a biased and unfair editorial is another example of the restraint they showed throughout the affair. The simple fact is that it appeared to be some of those in positions of authority who did not properly understand the nature of freedom and tolerance.



A generation or two ago, our society was far less pluralistic than it is today. Then, the church still retained considerable power. It probably would have been able to ensure, somehow, that Piss Christ never made it to Australian shores.


Those days, thankfully, are gone. We do live in a pluralistic society. And that is why it is especially important that those in positions of authority act with restraint, with due consideration of others - especially the many in our society who are powerless - and with a sense of duty and service.


Imagine if the Gallery exhibited an image of the most sacred Aboriginal artefact, immersed in a jar of urine. The outcry would be stupendous, and it would be an outcry based on the fact that in a pluralistic society there need to be some limits on our actions


Indeed, of all those involved in this messy episode, only the church displayed all of those qualities, and in abundance. In the end, it was the church - accused of intolerance from all quarters - that emerged as the main institution prepared to be tolerant. It is no understatement to say that the church, especially the Catholic Church and Dr Pell, acting with quiet dignity and with a sense of service to the community, emerged in a glowing, heroic light.



What happened to the offenders? It transpired that the 51-year-old man who tried to steal Piss Christ had a record of mental disturbance. He received a suspended jail sentence.


The 18-year-old who distracted guards while his younger companion attacked Piss Christ was placed on a two-year good-behaviour bond. The judge said the youth had no right to damage other people’s property, and he described the act as a totally unacceptable way to highlight disgust with an artwork in a treasured public institution.


The 16-year-old who took a hammer to the image did so after seeing his mother weep at the Gallery’s decision to place it on public display. (And yet, still, voices were heard decrying an upsurge of right-wing Christian fundamentalist violence in Australia.) In the Children’s Court he was placed on a 12-month good-behaviour bond, made to undergo counselling, and ordered to pay $640 to the court fund. The press reported that the magistrate expressed his outrage at the attack and said he had wanted to lock up the offender, but accepted that he had been acting honestly, though he was very misguided.



Let us look briefly at what has happened in some similar incidents.


Five years before the Serrano episode, four students from the Sydney College of Arts were arrested on a charge of defacing an advertising billboard which they claimed incited violence against women. The poster, advertising women’s underwear, featured a magician about to cut a women in half, and the caption, “You’ll always feel good in Berlei.”


They appeared at the Balmain Local Court in January 1993, and there was no talk of the need for tolerance in a pluralistic society. The charges against the students were dismissed, and the Sydney Morning Herald reported that:


The magistrate, Ms Pat O’Shane, made a strong speech attacking the sort of male-dominated world where such billboards were encouraged. She said there was too much violence against women in society. The offence had been committed not so much by the young women who defaced the poster as by the people who instigated that type of advertising.


Just a week after the Serrano attack, a group of environmental activists invaded Kirribilli House, the Sydney residence of the Prime Minister, and placed solar panels on it as a protest against Australia’s energy policies. It led to a major review of security arrangements at the house, especially as the Prime Minister’s daughter had been inside the house at the time.


The Herald Sun reported the subsequent court case thus:


A gang of Greenpeace activists who stormed Prime Minister John Howard’s official Sydney residence walked free from court yesterday after a magistrate said they had acted heroically. Magistrate Scott Mitchell said there were “good heartfelt intentions” in the crack raid….He said the protesters had acted “properly…heroically and certainly sincerely”. He told one woman it would be “churlish to record a conviction in respect of a person who has acted truthfully and with integrity….I have a care for Australia’s devotion to principles of liberty and the entitlement of its citizens to say their piece in a peaceful manner,” he said. “I guess society would be a lot duller if people weren’t able to say what they think.”….One by one the activists, whose ages ranged from 21 to 38, faced Mr Mitchell - and one by one he extolled their virtues. Even those who faced their second trespassing charge and a woman with several convictions for other matters were praised for their actions on the day….Through [defence solicitor] Mr [Roland] Everingham, each member tendered character references, which Mr Mitchell duly read, commenting to one activist he was “obviously a remarkable person”. Outside court, the chief executive of Greenpeace…expressed pleasure at the treatment of the group by the magistrate. “The court was certainly aware of the importance of social action within a democracy,” he said.


(The activists were later convicted and fined, after a successful appeal by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions against the leniency of the ruling.)



It is possible to argue that the Gallery’s decision to display Piss Christ was a deliberate provocation against Christians, designed to push them into a corner and to force them to appear intolerant. Certainly, Gallery officials knew the picture could offend. They told the public in advance how controversial it was.


But I prefer to think the Gallery’s action was based on ignorance of the feelings of ordinary Australians; that it was the result of decisions by an elite group of intellectuals out of touch with the community which the Gallery is supposed to serve. Gallery officials talked of the need for tolerance, while actually trying to take advantage of the deep seams of tolerance that run through Australia. I would suggest they mistook that tolerance for indifference.



I have highlighted some of the many attacks made against the church after the cancellation of the exhibition. But there was some reasoned comment as well. The art critic for The Australian, Giles Auty, wrote a column of supreme common sense. It is worth quoting at length:


Crossing the coastal range and catching sight of the Freycinet Peninsula on the East Coast of Tasmania for the first time, it is hard not to reflect on Australia’s super-abundance of sublime scenery. If only this were matched by a modicum of common sense in dealing with public problems, this great country might, indeed, be or become an earthly paradise.


My more pessimistic ponderings were prompted by the Andres Serrano affair and almost everything I have read or heard about it. If there is a central problem, it may be that few seem capable of grasping the implications of their actions and thus of accepting responsibility for them. What has transpired in the matter of Serrano is what was always likely to happen. What induced Timothy Potts, director of the National Gallery of Victoria, to put Serrano on display at the same time as Rembrandt - or at all - may escape most sensible people.


The first question most thoughtful people might address, faced with such a prospect, is not what harm an exhibition might do but what conceivable good? What genuine illumination, uplift or advancement of human understanding might an exhibition of photographs of obscure or disagreeable sexual practices or religious profanities bring to our citizens - other than those in urgent need of counselling themselves? Since the answer is almost nil, the next step would be to weigh this aspect against the huge possible offence, hurt and outrage that would almost certainly accrue from it. A little imagination was all that was needed….


The main obstacle to sensible action of this kind is a habitual claim by an unreflective but extremely vocal section of the community that someone is interfering with their “rights”. Indeed, I sense that what reduces the knees even of a highly educated man such as Potts to jelly is the threat of being accused - usually by self-styled radicals - of practising censorship. The fact that every civilised society which has ever emerged from the swamp practises some form of censorship in some areas - child pornography is an obvious instance - eludes the baying mob entirely. Ironically, the practices of political correctness - which most opponents of any form of censorship support - are often deeply censorious in themselves. The problem of censorship is simply one of who does the choosing.


When Potts first entered into dealings with Serrano he placed himself in a position from which it was impossible to win. Serrano has subsequently accused Potts of cowardice for closing his show, which had already deeply angered many patrons or potential patrons of the [Gallery]. I sense Potts allowed himself to be pressured into putting the show on in the first place. Now Serrano has shown just what a megalomaniac he is by demanding that Australians boycott the Rembrandt show, which could be the greatest aesthetic experience of their lives, to show solidarity with his perceived plight.


As a Christian myself, I believe that Christians throughout Australia should in fact be grateful for the Gallery’s decision to show the Serrano exhibition. For the ensuing row showed that - even in its present weakened position, and for all its defects - the church remains the main institution prepared to stand up for what is good and decent and civil in our society.


Why? Because Christianity insists on moral standards. It insists on right and wrong. And more. Despite its many faults, the church still holds its own members to higher standards than it does outsiders. And Christianity insists that leaders and public institutions must serve. They must serve their community, not themselves.


British historian Lord Acton wrote: “No country can be free without religion. It creates and strengthens the notion of duty. If men are not kept straight by duty, they must be by fear. The more they are kept by fear, the less they are free. The greater the strength of duty, the greater the liberty.”




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