Monday, August 21, 2006

The crucifixion of Madonna

When I saw the news reports about Madonna's mock crucifixion, I had to smile. She has some moxie. Sure, I have some quibbles about the Material Girl but her faux crucifixion isn't one of them. Overall, I admire Madonna. She's one helluva of an entertainer and I love her provocative style. She makes people think as artists should.

When religious critics denounced her for Christ-bashing and "an act of bad taste," I thought how odd. On any given Easter, someone with a beard climbs up on a cross to play Jesus in Christian pageants across America. So what's the problem? Do people really think that Jesus was the only person in history to have been crucified? Can't they appreciate the metaphor that symbolizes who's been nailed to the cross of scorn and condemnation? I can think of some groups of people who have been persecuted, scourged, and murdered just for being who they are. Can't you?

As Madonna hung from the fake cross during her concert, she performed the song, Live To Tell, which contains some appropriate lyrics, a tribute of sorts to the downtrodden, to victims of hate crimes, and to martyred innocents:

The light that you could never see
It shines inside, you can't take that from me

But then I read a disturbing report about Russian mobsters who were planning to kidnap Madonna and her kids allegedly over her "controversial mock crucifixion, in which she wears a crown of fake thorns while performing on a mirrored cross." Whoa! When folks take religion so seriously that they react violently and criminally with threats of bodily harm, their intimidation is reminiscent of fanatical extremists, or dare I say, religious terrorists. Life imitates art when zealous thugs menace Madonna and her children over a staged drama. Who has condemned these mobsters?

Hunting in the right blogosphere for voices who defended the Danish cartoons that set the Muslim world on fire with outrage at westerners, Digby found hardly a word uttered in Madonna's defense. When Muslims vehemently protested and condemned the cartoons, on the conservative side...

They all agreed that free speech and a free press were fundamental western values and that simply because certain religious people somewhere might be offended by certain images, it was no reason to withhold them. Indeed, it was reason to publish them, which many of these right wing bloggers did, with no compunction about offending the muslims in their own communities or around the world.

But strangely, I saw nothing about this Madonna thing. Perhaps they just haven't heard about this affront to liberal western values yet. But then, they have some rather strange ideas about what political speech should be defended and what should be condemned, don't they? They went crazy when Jane Hamsher posted a satirical image of Joe Lieberman in blackface and didn't even blink an eye at their own intellectual inconsistency. At the time I looked around for some of their stirring defenses of the Danish cartoons and found many. It was a certifiable cause in the right blogosphere, all done in the name of western liberal values.

Jeff Goldstein, for instance, wrote this:

This battle over the Danish cartoons highlights all of these philosophical dilemmas (which I have argued previously are the result of certain linguistic misunderstandings that are either cynically or idealistically perpetuated); and so we are brought to the point where this clash of civilizations—which in one important sense is a clash between theocratic Islamism and the west, but in another, more crucial sense, is a clash between the west and its own structural thinking, brought on by years of insinuation into our philosophy of what is, at root, collectivist thought that privileges the interpreter of an action over the necessary primacy of intent and agency and personal responsibility to the communicative chain—could conceivably become manifest over something so seemingly trivial as the right to satirize.

Digby had more to say about the controversy Jane Hamsher ignited over a blackfaced Lieberman. But let me pick up on the salient point (with emphasis):

The hysterical rightwing response to the graphic, however, was a laughable exercise in rank hypocrisy. The same people who ranted for weeks about the Danish cartoons and the principle of free speech even when it is offensive were the first ones to wring their lacy designer dew rags about leftist racism and bad taste when the opportunity came along.

I actually partially agree with Goldstein (hey, even a stopped clock is right twice a day) when he says some of this intolerance of controversial speech comes from the mistaken notion that the feelings of an interpreter of an action take primacy over the intent. (Hate crimes, for instance, are all about intent, although I doubt seriously that Goldstein agrees with me on that.) But the idea that it is the sole province of "collectivist" or liberal philosophy is ludicrous. It's the province of dogmatic thinkers everywhere, but it occurs far more often on the right, I'm afraid, and particularly among religious fanatics of all stripes who seek to silence anyone who doesn't adhere to their beliefs.

So true. And that, my dear friends, is one of the reasons I write narratives about my queer Christ iconography--not as an apologia but for clarification of my intent--not to wound, but to include, inspire, and heal those marginalized by blind religiosity. Artistically, a few critics have ridiculed me for leading the viewer to a particular understanding of a painting or drawing rather than letting them experience the artwork for themselves. Well, viewers still can and do. Far more people look at the pictures than read the narratives. But in these days of character assassinations and death threats from religious militants, creating a record preemptively declares my intention behind the artwork although such statements may not protect me from risk. At least I have articulated an objective--not to take the Bible literally--but to seek inclusiveness in a quintessential ministry about love. Truthfully, in the case of the historical Jesus, no one can factually prove with absolute precision if he was hetero, bisexual, gay, celibate, married, asexual or a hermaphrodite. All we have are assumptions, theories, and stories, some of which aren't too accurate. I, for one, believe it's time for new stories. People have gotten too hung up on who Jesus was rather than what he had to say.

As an artist, I can't control the reactionary impulses of threatened homophobes and narrow-minded traditionalists who have an idealized image of Jesus based on what is--sorry to point it out--mythology. We have no videotape, no live interviews, no reputable documentaries for examination to validate institutional presumptions. But some people will grab up torches and microphones to scorch anyone who dares to interpret a story differently. And when they do, they abandon free speech and freedom of religion to impose their versions of faith sometimes harshly and unfairly upon others who disagree. Wasn't this country founded on the principle of freedom of religion by people who desired to express their faith and speak freely without fear? Are western liberal values to be shared or hoarded by the religious right? Sometimes I wonder. Madonna's Live To Tell lyrics ask:

How will they hear
When will they learn
How will they know

Based on the malignant absurdity and derogatory tongue-wagging over Madonna's mock crucifixion, the answer is not now but hopefully soon.