On 28 June, Reverend Miak Siew was one of the 6 commentators invited to speak at Art As Res Publicae. The text below is a transcript of his speech, responding to the topic for the evening, Complexities Surrounding Pluralism In Singapore.
The Church has been used to its historical role as the pre-eminent patron of the arts – and artists avoided offending the Church because they depended on the commissions. The Church had the power to censor whatever it deemed to be offensive, immoral, heretical. The Council of Trent in the 16th century ordered that the nude figures in Michaelangelo’s The Last Judgement to be painted over. Today, the Church continues its role as the censor-emeritus.
When I was in seminary, we were to share a piece of art with our small group in our Art and Religion class. I picked a 1987 photograph by American artist and photographer Andres Serrano. Many of my friends thought it was beautiful – It was a red and yellow photograph of a crucifix. When they learned that the title of the photograph was “Immersions (Piss Christ)”and it featured a crucifix submerged in a container of urine, their reaction immediately changed to disgust. I wonder if we could move beyond a visceral reaction and think about the meanings behind the photograph. Serrano, a Christian himself, said that his work is a critique of "billion-dollar Christ-for-profit industry." He said, "The thing about the crucifix itself is that we treat it almost like a fashion accessory. When you see it, you're not horrified by it at all, but what it represents is the crucifixion of a man. And for Christ to have been crucified and laid on the cross for three days where he not only bled to death, he shat himself and he peed himself to death. So if Piss Christ upsets you, maybe it's a good thing to think about what happened on the cross." The artist’s intention was the exact opposite of being offensive to Christianity.
It is interesting that protests from religious folks often have not seen or viewed or reflected on whatever that was deemed offensive.
If art is to be of “public interest,” then it requires engagement. Engagement is not just wanting to ban anything that is offensive or threatening. Engagement is reflecting on the thoughts and emotions evoked within us as we encounter each artwork. Does it inspire us? Does it disturb us? Why does it inspire us? How does it inspire us? Why does it disturb us? What does it offer to the larger public?
The Church does not have monopoly over the truth. The Arts and Sciences, can offer truths and the Church (and other religions) need to understand that as a participant of the public sphere, the Church would also need to be open to critique. The Church can close up and claim to be offended in a bid to protect itself from critique and scrutiny. But in doing so, it will lose its credibility and its very important role in participating in the public sphere.
How many of you have watched the musical “The Book of Mormon?” I have. I have to admit I thought that it is rather offensive to Mormons. Yet, the response of the Mormon Church was very surprising. Instead of protests and violence at the musical, they issued a very mild statement stating, "The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ." The LDS Church even advertised in the playbills with phrases like “you've seen the play, now read the book" and "the book is always better." Isn’t that a lot better than slashing paintings or violent protests or calling for a ban just because you didn’t like what someone said?