Striking a nerve is not blasphemy

Posted on September 23, 2008

post_gibbs_jesus_criticismOn Dec. 9, 2006, in a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, one Cary Cusumano, of Ashburn VA complained about an illustration I had done for The Washington Post Magazine a week earlier.

Mr. Cusamano said:
“The selection of Michael Gibbs’s illustration depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus with a symbol of the Democratic Party is not only insensitive to Christians, especially Catholics, but is also blasphemous [“The Gospel According to Jim Wallis,” Magazine, Nov. 26]. Christians should be afforded the same respect for their beliefs as other religions or groups. Sadly, such respect cannot be found in The Post or other news media.”
— Cary Cusumano, Ashburn

Mr. Cusumano doesn’t seem to understand three things:
1. Skewering a well-known image is a time-honored form of visual communication, closely affiliated with parody and satire, which is “the use of irony… in exposing, denouncing, or deriding …folly”. It only works if the underlying image is well known. A couple of well-known examples are Duchamp’s parody of the Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa,” and the numerous parodies of Grant Woods’ “American Gothic.”

parodies_c2. Blasphemy is “the impious utterance or action concerning God or sacred things” or, in Judaism, “the act of cursing or reviling God.” What was parodied here was not God or Jesus, but a painting (any number of paintings actually). The paintings of the Sacred Heart first appeared as the result of visions experienced by a 17th century French nun. These paintings are not sacred things. They are a 17th century representation of an abstract concept— “the Love of Jesus.”

3. I was expressing my view — a right that even artists and Democrats (the last time I checked) have under the US Constitution. At the same time, I was reflecting the content of the article I was illustrating, which is my job. That view, distilled down to its essence, is that Jesus was, in his heart, a Democrat. (Get it?)

gibbs_jesus_2As a Democrat and a Christian (I was raised Catholic) I have long been rankled by the GOP’s hijacking and exploitation of Christian values. Those sentiments were echoed by Jim Wallis, the subject of The Post article and author of “God’s Politics.” What Wallis sees as the true mission of Christianity — righting social ills, working for peace — is in tune with the values of liberals who so often run screaming from the idea of religion. Meanwhile… religious vocabulary is co-opted by conservatives who use it to polarize” [Amazon.com].

A political party that promotes corporate greed over the rights of those with the least among us (including immigrants and the poor), opposes controls on Saturday Night specials, opposes basic rights for gays and lesbians, opposes stem-cell research that could save lives, practices racism (remember Willie Horton?), wages an unnecessary and illegal war that kills thousands of innocents — does not represent the heart and love of Jesus. It is the Democratic Party that does. That sentiment led to the imagery I chose.

What I find fascinating is that it is the artwork, rather than the text, that seems to get people in a tizzy. Art is meant to disturb, said the French painter Georges Braque. And it seems to disturb conservatives disproportionately.

I have to admit I took a great deal of satisfaction in reading this, and other such Letters to the Editor. They’re a reminder that artwork still has the power not only to inspire and reflect the beauty of this world, but to piss people off and illustrate the ugliness of this world. And noting the political direction from which these Letters to the Editor invariably seem to be fired, they’re also a reminder of the truth of Social Realist Ben Shahn’s observation, “The artist is likely to be looked upon with some uneasiness by the more conservative members of society.”

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