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The Clash of Icons

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Bin Huang

A Fire in My Belly, by David Wojnarowicz

In 2010, National Portrait Gallery of Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. put on an exhibit called Hide/Seek. It was the first gay-theme exhibition in a large art institution. The exhibit comprises art works from some of the biggest names, such as Andy Warhol, and Thomas Eakins. However, the fuss is not about Andy Warhol, Thomas Eakins, nor the fact that this is the first gay-theme exhibition in a major art gallery, it is about a 4-minute video clip from David Wojnarowicz‘s unfinished film “A Fire in My Belly”. The video contains images of references to Christianity, including the most outrageous scene of ants crawling over a crucifix. The appearance of this video clip in Smithsonian drew furious attack from the Catholic League, and later on, attentions from the Congress: Representative John Boeher, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor criticized the presence of the video, and demanded removal of the video installation from the exhibit. Eventually, Smithsonian had to remove the video from the exhibition, despite the fact that the exhibit was “funded by individual donors”, and underwritten by foundations that support gay and lesbian issues”.

This is not the first time the government and the public react strongly to a controversial art work exhibited in a museum. In September 1999, Brooklyn Museum of Art was threatened to be cut off from New York City’s financial support because of the “sick nature of the museum’s exhibition”, Sensation, according to the then mayor Rudolph Giuliani. British artist Chris Ofili’s interpretation of Holy Virgin Mary induces the liberal and the conservative to a heated argument, especially the elephant dung on Virgin Mary’s breast. Artists’ constant “offences” of religions brings up the questions: Why do artists keep crossing the line? In fact, where is the line between the sacred and the profane?

Holy Virgin Mary, by Chris Ofili

First of all, visual art and religion shares the power of looking. The primitive art grew out of ritual. Throughout the history, religions have recognized the power of images, and have been the biggest patron of visual art. Religions and visual art both strive to express ideas in a concrete form, namely in the form of images, as opposed to philosophy and science, which adopt more abstract forms to convey ideas.Art and religions both have the power to evoke deepest human emotions. They are both capable of providing very personal experiences, as well as facilitating people’s activities of allying with others who share the same opinions and ideology.

The common characteristics shared by visual art and religions allow them to use each other to its own advantage. In addition to illustrating the stories they are trying to tell, which is prevalent in Christianity, religions is in fact the ultimate example of taking advantage of the totemic power of visual art. The power of representation in imagery, combined with the proliferation of religions, results in the depiction and embodiment of religions, mainly religious symbols and icons.

Icons for Christianity and Islamism

Icons are often perceived to represent universal concepts, emotions, and meanings. Thus, an image produced in a specific culture, time, and place might be interpreted as having universal meaning and the capacity to evoke similar responses across all cultures and in all viewers. Ancient religions are no strangers to icons. The crucifix is one of the most recognizable symbols in the world. The images of Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, even depictions of God, can be easily identified, even though they all vary in details.

In Islamism, depicting God is forbidden. In Islamic drawings, the face of Prophet Muhammad is always covered, so that people do not have a visual impression on what Muhammad looks like. It became the reason why a call-out for artists to interpret their perceptions on Prophet Muhammad’s appearance caused many upheavals in Muslim countries.

Cartoonists' Depictions of Prophet Muhammad

While Islamism is reluctant to depict the image of God, the religion does not lack of prominent symbols. The symbol of a star adjacent to the moon in green has been commonly recognized as the symbol of Islamism. In addition, the calligraphy of Quran, especially the name of Allah, has become iconic images of the religion.

Left: Turkish School, Mohammed. Right: Islamic Calligraphy of Allah

Religions use the power of images to their advantage. As the New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman pointed out, “To many people, pictures will always, mysteriously, embody the things they depict.” Religions utilize the power of looking to evoke emotions, and stimulate the feelings of awe, mystery, fear, and worshipful in their believers. It progresses almost to a level of personal ties to the images, which will elicit strong reactions to any sorts of offence. David Freedberg, an art historian, sums up the images’ power to call out to people in his study, The Power of Images:

People are sexually aroused by pictures and sculptures; they break pictures and sculptures; they mutilate them, kiss them, cry before them, and go on journeys to them; they are calmed by them, stirred by them, and incited to revolt. They give thanks by means of them, expect to be elevated by them, and are moved to the highest levels of empathy and fear. They have always responded in these ways; they still do. They do so in societies we call primitive and in modern societies; in East and West, in Africa, America, Asia and Europe.

Conversely, some artists incorporate these icons religions have created, but in a subversive way. They break the traditional use of these icons: they immerse the holy cross in piss, they “throw” elephant dung on Holy Virgin Mary, they draw sarcastic cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, and so on. While most of these sacrileges are only met with various degrees of verbal protest, there are times when it becomes a matter of life and death. In 2004, Danish filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was brutally murder on the street by a Muslim extremist, who shot Van Gogh 8 times, stabbed him several times, tried to decapitate him, and left a five-page threatening letter with a knife implanted in Van Gogh. The appalling murder was all because of a short film Theo Van Gogh made. It is called submission, and it tells a story of domestic violence to a young Muslim girl by his uncle, and it details her internal struggle with whether she should reveal it or submit to men. Some people, because of the writings of Quran on the girl’s back, deemed the film as an attack on Islamism. Theo Van Gogh lost his life by shattering the taboo, and profaning the sacred.

Left: Submission by Theo Van Gogh. Right: Crime Scene Photo of the Murder of Theo Van Gogh

Secondly, art keeps pushing the limits of perceptions. “Art is the name of a perpetual human struggle with the limits of perception.” In order to extend the limited perceptions, art borrows from religion, most times its symbolism, to express ideas beyond descriptions, expecting to evoke strong reacting emotions from the audience. David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” is a good example. The artist suffered from late AIDS symptoms, and he was having a physical struggle that can be described as hundreds of ants crawling inside his body. In addition to that, David was suffering from a mental struggle that came from the world’s condemnation on AIDS as a curse and uncleanness. With the image of ants crawling over the cross, David Wojnarowicz tried to express his physical and mental struggle, his anger, and his cry for people’s attention to the suffering of AIDS patients, as cross being a symbol of suffering.

What’s interesting is that some artists who have offended religions actually come from a religious background. Such artists as Chris Ofili, Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, were brought up in religious families, and some still practice their beliefs. They are familiar with religious symbols, which sometimes they believe are the most appropriate visual representations of their feelings. They use these symbols to express meanings and emotions they have personally attached to the symbols. As Andres Serrano stated, “my Catholic upbringing informs this work (Piss Christ) which helps me to redefine and personalize my relationship with God.” Artists often depend on the manipulation of symbols to present ideas and associations not always apparent in such symbols. Because of the meanings the artists have attached to the symbols personally may have other meanings than worshipping, some of the usages become controversial. On this note, there raises the question of what is blasphemy, and what is sacred and should not be offended?

Piss Christ, by Andres Serrano

There is nothing that is sacred and cannot be offended. In fact, these religious symbols are so universal that everyone can attach his personal feelings to them. However, because these symbols are so universal, and people interpret them with personal feelings attached, they become open to interpretations, which people often ignored. If people put bumper stickers saying, “Jesus is My Co-pilot”, “My God is alive – sorry about yours”, use the name of the Lord in vain, and do so-called causes in the name of their gods, then why are the artists getting condemned? In fact, Andres Serrano put the cross in piss, partly because he wants to ask people to put a stop to using the name of Jesus Christ in vain.

Moreover, because religion’s attribute of being personal makes it sensitive, people often attach their agendas when they are condemning the artists. Condemnation from such conservative groups as Catholic League is no more than just an obvious cry for attention. Majority leader Eric Cantor’s relentless reaction against Smithsonian Institution may due to the fact that he just got selected. Similarly, Rudolph Giuliani’s harsh criticism on the exhibition Sensation at Brooklyn Museum of Art was partly because he just announced running a campaign for Senate against Hillary Rodham Clinton. Unfortunately, art becomes the sacrifice for political and religious authorities.

With that being said, artists have their agendas as well. Similar to the other side of the table, there are artists creating art works to offend religions, purely crying for public attentions. While those cheap art works are easily forgotten, some artists aim to use their art works to call people’s attention to more serious social issues, such as AIDS, domestic violence, and ultimately, religion conflicts. They break the traditional uses of these religious symbols, and give their own interpretations or attach their personal perceptions to them, not for the sake of creativity, but for the cause to challenge societies, and call for changes. They challenge people to rethink their identities in societies in terms of race, gender, class, sexuality, etc. “Such taboo arts serve as powerful components in the making and shaping of society since they reveal a general public’s lusts, longings, fears, and repulsions.” They are the soldiers in this cultural war. Even though there are revenges and casualties, and even though political and religious authorities usually win, they do not stop fighting!

When people look at these “blasphemous” images, they should see the power of images that evoke the deepest and most personal feelings. They should see the use of religious imagery as testimony of its continuous relevance and richness, rather than as a single- (and simple-) minded attempt at offence. Most importantly, they should examine the contexts of the art works before they interpret them, in order to realize the cause of waging this culture war to challenge societies and call for changes.


  1. Bullying and Censorship.” The New York Times. 6 Dec, 2010. Web. 10 May, 2011. <;.
  2. Rosenbaum, Lee. “My Q&A with the Smithsonian on “Hide/Seek” (and NPR’s Interview with Me).” ArtsJournal: Daily Arts News. 1 Dec. 2010. Web. 10 May 2011. <;.
  3. Trescott, Jacqueline. “Ant-covered Jesus Video Removed from Smithsonian after Catholic League Complains (video).” The Washington Post. 1 Dec. 2010. Web. 10 May 2011. <;.
  4. Harrison, Jane Ellen. Ancient Art and Ritual (1913). Kila, MT: Kessinger, 1998. Print.
  5. Mintcheva, Svetlana. “Art, Religion and Censorship.” Conscience: A Newsjournal of Catholic Opinion XXIV.1 (2003): 29-30. Catholics for Choice. Web. 10 May 2011. <;.
  6. Andreev, Ivan. “Religion and Art.” Orhodox Christianity and the World : A Russian Orthodox Church Website. Trans. Savvatii Lewis. 7 Aug. 2006. Web. 10 May 2011. <;.
  7. Kimmelman, Michael. “A Startling New Lesson in the Power of Imagery.” The New York Times. 8 Feb. 2006. Web. 10 May 2011. <;.
  8. Cohen, Patricia. “Danish Cartoon Controversy.” The New York Times. 12 Aug. 2009. Web. 10 May 2011. <;.
  9. Serrano, Andres. “Ambiguously Provocative.” Conscience: A Newsjournal of Catholic Opinion XXIV.1 (2003): 30-31. Catholics for Choice. Web. 10 May 2011. <;.
  10. Plate, S. Brent. Blasphemy: Art That Offends. London: Black Dog, 2006. Print.
  11. Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: an Introduction to Visual Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
  12. Freedberg, David. The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007. Print.

Written by uartsgr655

May 11, 2011 at 8:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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