That one word makes a difference

I would like to note that the following post is in no way an endorsement of the decision by a Colorado woman to smash up a piece of alleged modern art.

In fact, I don’t think that the following New York Times story is all that bad.

I am simply jumping in here — in the wake of a post by the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway — to conduct what I think will be a vivid thought experiment, this time in the context of truly elite media. I am simply asking if this Times story would have been handled in a different way if one word had been changed.

Ready? Here comes my version, with only one major change made throughout this excerpt.

Provocative Image of Muhammad Sets Off a Debate Punctuated With a Crowbar

LOVELAND, Colo. – For once, the quaint museum on Lincoln Avenue was all quiet. A sign inside was the only indication of the recent trouble.

“This piece was destroyed by an act of violence and is no longer on exhibit,” the sign read.

For weeks now, this bucolic northern Colorado city of just over 60,000, which has a vibrant arts community, has been bitterly divided over the controversial artwork that once sat in the empty display of the Loveland Museum Gallery where the sign now rests.

Some here interpreted the small image, which was part of a lithographic print exhibition by the San Francisco artist Enrique Chagoya, as showing Muhammad engaged in a sex act with another man, and demanded its removal. Others argued that Mr. Chagoya, an art professor at Stanford, had the right to create what he pleased. …

The print itself, part of a series by Mr. Chagoya called “The Misadventures of Romantic Cannibals,” shows the head of Muhammad, eyes rolled back, atop a mostly clothed woman’s body. A man’s head, tongue out, is near the woman’s legs. The Spanish word “orgasmo” is displayed in the background. …

Well, I don’t think that I need to go on. The change is pretty obvious, is it not? I have simply substituted the Prophet Muhammad for Jesus Christ.

Obviously, this exhibit did not include a provocative image of Muhammad of this kind. That would be considered highly offensive to Muslims and the leaders of the museum would never have allowed that. I dare say that the Times team would have assumed that this work was, in fact, an improper attack on Islam. At the very least this issue would have been debated, with articulate voices on both sides.

Here’s my main point: Since this is a story about a provocative work of art that would be seen as offensive by many if not most Christians, especially Catholics in the context of the American Southwest and the Rockies, it is interesting to ponder whether the news coverage of this exhibit and the attack would be framed in the same way if the story was about an offense to Islam.

To cut to the chase: Readers get to hear from a Catholic leader who believes that the exhibit was, in fact, offensive. That is an important voice. However, this article assumes that his is a voice from the “conservative” town that has rejected the show. He is anti-art, you see.

Last week, a local deacon began to help organize protests outside the museum, and last Tuesday people packed a City Council meeting to speak out on the exhibit. Mr. Klassen estimated that most in attendance were opposed to the image.

The Rev. Ed Armijo, a deacon at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Loveland, said: “It is deeply offensive to see our Lord depicted that way. It is our position that this is not art. It’s pornography.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Armijo said he was “devastated” by Ms. Folden’s actions. “She doesn’t live in our city,” he said.

So, if the work at focused on Muhammad, would the Times have offered the same essentially pro-art tone, with no other questions asked or strongly implied?

Just asking.

Photo: After the attack, from the SharksInk website’s offerings of the work of Enrique Chagoya.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.fivefeetoffury.com Kathy Shaidle

    Actually, that exhibit did/does have a picture of Mohammed:

    http://blazingcatfur.blogspot.com/2010/10/wheres-muhammad.html

  • James

    When Ms. Hemmingway published her article, I clicked through to the various links provided, and one of them was an article linking to a page at sharksink.com for a depiction of the original. It had been removed from sharksink.

    They now show the damaged piece, with the note:

    “The destruction of the Enrique Chagoya “The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals” at the Loveland Museum Gallery was the direct result of the inflammatory and false descriptions of the print in the press and by those protesting it’s inclusion in our exhibition. The controversial image has been demonized as “pornographic”, “obscene” and “depicting Jesus in a sex act” when this is not the truth.

    We deplore the violence and intolerance of this act. It is an insidious form of coercive censorship.”

    Quoted elsewhere (including the link above provided by Kindle) is Prof. Shagoya saying:

    “If you can’t understand satire – whether it mocks exalted professors or exalted prophets – then jump on the next camel and get the hell out of the country. This is America, not a Muslim theocracy.”

    Mutatis mutandis, one could argue that since Sharksink supports Prof. Shagoya’s expressions as reasonable and non-offensive, and they do not understand how depicting Christ with the word “orgasm” is not “obscene,” they should jump in their lime-colored volkswagen minibus and get the **** out of the country as well. Could argue, I won’t here.

    I do find it a bit ghastly, though, that they no longer display the original to allow people to decide for themselves whether it is obscene, and thus whether these severe allegations are true or not – or whether they should share the rather hateful allegations without questioning. So much for freedom of “coercive censorship.”

  • Jeffrey

    Is an act of blasphemy against the religion of the vast majority of Americans different from an act of blasphemy against a small, minority religion in America? Is an artist challenging the cultural depiction of Jesus in a country soaked in Christianity different from an artist challenging the cultural depiction of Muhammed in a country where Muslims are a small minority and many have overt hostility towards them?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JEFFREY:

    So, once again, basic journalism values do not apply? Please apply your comment about the ISSUE to the journalism issues. Please.

    I assume you also believe that newspapers in Saudi Arabia should be especially careful not to offend Christians? Pakistan?

  • Jeffrey

    Surely, TMatt, you realize that the concept of free speech and press is different in Saudi Arabaia than it is in the U.S. The U.S. press is held to a different standard than the Saudi press.

    There is a clash between free speech, free expression, and relgion here. The NYT piece explained that clash. I’m not sure playing the “if it was about Muhammed” argument is really a helpful way of looking at the reporting since it is overly simplistic.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    But I am not asking a simple question.

    I am asking about how this story was framed in the coverage, not whether it was a valid story.

    What you are saying, it seems, is that basic rules of fairness and balance do not APPLY to this subject, because the artist — I would defend the artist’s right to do this, btw — is attacking a majority religion (kind of a majority, but that’s another issue).

    By your standard, one could simply say that the rules of the American model of the press do not apply to coverage of traditional forms of Christianity at all (even though I think the traditional forms are now a statistical minority in this culture).

  • Jeffrey

    They do apply. But Christianity is the majority religion in the U.S., Christians (especially traditional ones) are powerful players in the culture and political world, and Christianity permeates every fiber of American life. Thus, the frame a journalist uses to look at a piece of art attacked by a Christian activist is going to be different.

    They quoted people who explained why it was offensive. What exactly would you have liked the story to look like. Without using any comparison to Muhammed or Islam, explain what the reporter missed without using a “if it were about Muhammed” false comparison. Maybe that would make it easier to understand your pique.

    The rules of American model of press apply, which means to ask hard questions, be fair and offer both sides. You seem to think the story isn’t fair, but you don’t really explain why. Again, without mentioning Muhammed or Islam, explain why it is unfair.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Oh, another question, Jeffrey:

    So a Pakistani artist who comes to America — a Muslim progressive or even a Christian convert — seeking artistic freedom and decides to create a similar art work attacking Muhammad: Does this artist also suffer from your news template that does not require balanced coverage?

  • Julia

    Sounds like the explanation I heard on TV not long ago that minority people can’t be racist; only oppressors can be racist.

    Jeffrey:

    Then artists should feel free to exhibit pornographic depictions of Muhammed in Saudi Arabia – because the artist is only tweaking a majority faith and not threatening minority believers. Good luck with that.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JEFFREY in comment 7:

    I believe my post speaks for itself.

  • Dave

    Of course the coverage would have been different, in part because there would have been different voices raised on one side or the other, but mostly because of the hint of potential severe violence that’s absent from the actual events.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “alleged modern art”

    What’s “alleged” about it TMATT? The fact that it offends traditional believers? That you don’t like it? Please, enlighten us.

    Also, I would be a lot more sympathetic to these arguments about differences in coverage re: Christian/Muslim bad behavior if some traditional Christian commentators didn’t seem so darn wistful about it. As though they want a slice of that pie that was served to the other guy.

  • tmatt

    Yes, Jason. I used “alleged” because of the debates created by this kind of exhibit in a public facility.

    You see, that “alleged” is a framing device, isn’t it? I’ve been waiting for someone to respond to that intentionally pushed button.

    And the fact that the Times framed this merely as conservatives being offended by art story, as opposed to a story in which the concept that the art was anti-Catholic or anti-Christian was even explored or mentioned, is a framing device.

    Again, the goal is to cover BOTH ANGLES. I have already said that I, personally, support the artist’s right to do the work. And the museum’s right to display it.

    And the right for some to be offended by it, to protest it, to even try to — legally — shut it down through valid, non-violent public debate, etc.

    Wistful? Is yearning for basic journalism WISTFUL?

  • other Chris

    Mr. Mattingly, does the fact that one can so easily anticipate the tenor of such an article, or the counterpart you imagine, not give you reason to question your notion that the American press strives for objectivity?

    The press, anywhere, has never NOT been more-or-less SOMEBODY’S bully pulpit.

    I enjoy what you do here very much. I am not convinced, yet, that you “get” journalism. Sounds absurd, I know. You are a journalist! So?

    I think it is worthy to seek to get professional journalists to think as objectively as possible about that which they attempt to argue. I don’t think we can objectively expect anything more objective than that. It would be nice to see fewer straw men and mischaracterizations in the on going ideological battle that is journalism.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog Jason Pitzl-Waters

    re: “wistful”

    “Obviously, this exhibit did not include a provocative image of Muhammad of this kind. That would be considered highly offensive to Muslims and the leaders of the museum would never have allowed that. I dare say that the Times team would have assumed that this work was, in fact, an improper attack on Islam. At the very least this issue would have been debated, with articulate voices on both sides.”

    There’s a certain LONGING there in that passage. Maybe one only us religious minorities see.

  • Julia

    Longing? Wistful? What???

    Are you saying this is about craving the mantle of victimhood? That’s how it comes across.

    Majority folks can’t be “victims” – that’s the new mantra I hear from the ACLU to CAIR to the NAACP. The media seems to be buying it.

  • Julia

    What happened to neutral treatment of various groups?

    Is that now passe? Who are the media carrying water for?

  • Jerry

    Terry, an extension of your though experiment is to continue the word substitution to include Krishna, Buddha, Desmond Tutu, the Pope or someone’s guru. Or perhaps even leave the religious realm and consider how the story would/should be written if the incident had been about George Bush or Barack Obama.

    The real problem is the symbiotic relationship between an artist who creates something bizarre and a media which glories in reporting the bizarre. Finding that the media misreported the story is like finding toxic sludge on top of a cesspool. It’s a valid finding but then you need to cleanse the smell (images) from your brain in some way.

  • http://politicsdaily.com Jeffrey Weiss

    I will gently point out that the cases you present are not precisely parallel. For many Muslims, not depicting Mohammad is a matter of theology. They believe that God, through his prophet, said not to do it.

    Depictions of Jesus, respectful and not, do not for *most* Christians raise questions about Received Truth. More about de gustibus non est disputandum. And personal lines of respect.

    The religious stakes, therefore, are not the same. So a responsible journalist would not portray them as if they were.

  • Julia

    not depicting Mohammad is a matter of theology

    So because it’s OK to portray Jesus at all that makes it just fine to portray him any way at all? If it would be disrespectful and vile to portray George Washington in a pornographic way, then it is also disrespectful and vile to portray Jesus that way.

    These are mind games that people are getting a big bang out of playing.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JASON:

    You know, you are right. There is a wistful, longing tone in that passage.

    It’s the sound of a grieving journalist who is sick and tired or right-wingers who basically hate journalism being able to attack the mainstream press over and over and over as unbalanced and unfair and, in general, out of whack when trying to cover these kinds of issues.

    Maybe that’s something that only religious and journalistic minorities can appreciate.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Jeffrey Weiss:

    Actually, I think you have it partially wrong.

    If you are looking for a theological parallel, the closest thing that Islam has to a concept of absolute holiness — something parallel to the belief that Jesus is God Incarnate — would be its veneration of a copy of the Koran, a real one, in Arabic, as a perfect expression of the mind of Allah.

    Thus, the parallel would be a museum offering performance art of someone, with tax dollars, ripping up sacred Arabic copies of the Koran. Correct?

    But that didn’t fit into this story well enough. Thus, I went with the milder offense.

  • http://blazingcatfur.blogspot.com Blazingcatfur

    Well I was had by Mike Adams his column is satire. Truth be told I was had by my own desire to mock the MSM and the lefties. Blogger Sleeping Beastly has set us straight.

    http://sleepingbeastly.blogspot.com/2010/10/dont-fall-for-it.html

    Mike Adams responded to my e-mail asking confirmation:

    Adams, Mike to me show details 4:41 PM (19 minutes ago)

    Pure satire!

    msa

    “Tolerance is the virtue of a man without convictions.” – G.K. Chesterton.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    Tmatt,
    Jeffrey’s whole premise is also false.
    Since historically and probably presently the majority of Americans have disliked the Catholic Church, does the depiction of the Virgin Mary in a truly crude way done nearly 20 years ago with government funding count as a not acceptable form of anti-Catholicism? Or is his rule way more complexed than he lets on. …


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