Web posted Tuesday, April 17, 2001
When art is repressed, we miss message
By Bill Tammeus
Kansas City Star

The poet Robert Browning may have said most clearly what frightens so many people about art: "Art remains the one way possible of speaking truth."
If we add to Browning's assertion this truth from essayist and historian James Truslow Adams -- "Every art is social" -- we begin to understand why history is scarred by relentless efforts to censor or at least control art.

And this isn't limited just to ancient history, either. In quite recent times, Afghanistan's rulers have ordered historic statues destroyed and the archbishop of Santa Fe, N.M., has demanded removal of a bikini-clad version of the Virgin Mary from a folk art museum there.

The reasons some people have such intense anti-art feelings are, no doubt, various and complicated. But most of those reasons can be traced to both fear of ideas and to deep -- if often unquestioning -- feelings of reverence for what is sacred. Sometimes, no doubt, those motives can overlap or even be in conflict.

For instance, in Afghanistan, the hostile and rigid Taliban leaders fall into both categories. They are clearly frightened to death that liberating ideas will gain currency and loosen the hold those tyrants have on citizens. So they have overseen the destruction of pre-Islamic statues, including ancient Buddhas from the third and fifth centuries. For Afghanistan, only one religious way of seeing the world will be allowed.

This unwavering commitment to their version of truth, however, means that they must smash art's inherent ability to speak of other truths. They are convinced they know what is sacred and what is profane and are determined to rid themselves of what they deem unholy.

The self-righteous Taliban leaders are not, of course, the first people in history to smash what they believe to be false idols. The 16th century Protestant Reformation itself was marked by iconoclasm, and at times the radical leaders of the movement were inspired by the biblical story about King Josiah destroying the altars of the god Baal.

But that's not the only potential biblical support for such destruction. In the 12th chapter of the book of Deuteronomy, God directs the people of Israel to "demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to dispossess served their gods. ... Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire and hew down the idols of their gods. ..."

Just as it once was easy for advocates of slavery to find scriptural support for their evil view, so it's not difficult to misuse S cripture to justify destroying art that offends one's sense of the sacred.

The New Mexico case is intriguing because it tests the boundaries between art meant to invoke feelings of religious devotion and art meant to shed starkly disturbing light on ancient religious values.

Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan said he found this modern image of the Virgin Mary insulting and said it "seems open season on Catholic symbols." Because the computer-generated collage is so stunningly different from previous depictions of Mary, it's not hard to see why he and other Catholics gasped in initial horror at it.

But the artist, Alma Lopez, says she finds nothing offensive about trying to portray the mother of Jesus as a modern woman, "a strong woman, like us."

Indeed, what seems to have happened here -- and in many similar cases -- is that those who view the art with disgust have attributed to the artist an evil motive. They haven't seen what the artist says he or she saw and tried to portray. In some ways, in the minds of those who would ban such art, it's not a question of art at all. Rather, it's a question of what's holy.

Censoring or destroying art may, thus, make theological points or even political points. But even people with a clear sense of what is sacred should not be afraid to let art speak truth for itself -- as indeed, it must.