Seeking offence, as Christians have done in the case of Terence Koh’s Jesus statue, is the tactic of the vindictive and the bullying, writes Padraig Reidy
Many of us have been in the situation at some point, whether at school, on the street, or in the wrong pub at the wrong time. Minding our business, when out of nowhere come the dread words: ‘What you lookin’ at?’ (or variations thereof).
There is, of course, no proper answer to this: there’s not supposed to be. It’s an overture, not a question. And only if you’re lucky will you escape before the curtain comes up on Act One of the ultraviolence.
The implication of ‘what you lookin’ at?’ is that you’re the one who started it. You’re the one who caused the initial offence, and the offence was so great that it had to be met with a swift and sweeping response, i.e. a fist (or glass, if you’re very unlucky) in the face. Your fault, because you caused the offence. It’s a calculated, nasty mentality, beloved of bullies for time immemorial.
Of course, bullies take many forms, and present their bullying in many ways. Step forward Emily Mapfuwa and her backers, the Christian Legal Centre, who have launched a civil suit against the Baltic gallery in Gateshead after it exhibited Chinese artist Terence Koh’s plaster Jesus, complete with comedy erection. Mapfuwa sought out the offence, and then ‘reacted’ in an extreme manner.
Mapfuwa alleges that the statuette outrages public decency and causes harassment, alarm and distress to the public. This might have been true if the tiny Messiah had stepped down from its plinth and begun marauding about the North East, sneaking up on old ladies and shouting in their ears. But that’s not what happened. The piece stayed in the gallery, alongside equally tumescent pals Mickey Mouse and ET, where interested parties could examine him, and the uninterested, or even the appalled, could look away. Mapfuwa chose not to turn away, and not even to register her upset with a letter, but instead to bully the gallery through the courts.
The plaintiff claims that the artist would never have depicted Muhammad in such a way. And they may have a point. But not for the reasons they think. Koh’s exhibition subverted icons: Jesus, ET, Mickey Mouse. Representations of Jesus have been a part of global culture for the best part of 2,000 years. Artistically, if one’s aim is to poke fun at the iconic, it would be utterly pointless to stick an erect penis on a statue of Muhammad, simply because there is almost no such thing as a statue of Muhammad. There is no image to subvert. Think about it: what does Jesus look like? We’ll all come up with pretty much an identical image. What does Muhammad look like? I have absolutely no idea. I can try to imagine something, as can you, but your image of Muhammad will probably be different from mine. In such circumstances, lacking the icon, Koh’s joke doesn’t work.
This of course, isn’t the logic at play in Mapfuwa and the Christian Legal Centre’s complaint: the rationale they are reaching for is the bully’s other great excuse: a bigger boy made me do it. Now that Sikhs and Muslim groups have found some sympathy in calling for censorship, Christian groups feel emboldened in doing the same. Not since the passing of Mary Whitehouse has the religious right been so confident in its right to stifle debate, literature and art. As is the case with all bullies, eventually we’ll have to stand up to them.