For many millennia, at all times, the main commissioner in the art world was religion, whether it was ancient Egypt, ancient Greece or Rome, or more recently, renaissance period catholic church. Religion has provided funding and means for artists to survive. But this relationship was always rather fraught - on one hand it was lifesaving for artists and craftsmen, on the other repressive and suffocating.
Artists were seen by religious institutions and states as naughty boys who, when left unsupervised, produced ‘sinful’ works aimed to corrupt and pervert society. This cost numerous artists their careers and many their lives. Needless to mention that religion also monopolised materials needed by artists to work. One example here would be the colour blue, that could only be used to paint TheVirgin Mary for a number of centuries and its use had to be approved by The Vatican.
But we are lucky to be born in this time: the majority of us live in a secular society, where religion does not have control over freedom of expression for artists and the general public can express themselves freely and without fear. Or are we? Let’s see…
Religion is a subject that keeps inspiring me in my artistic life. Being an atheist I view religion as a rather dangerous phenomenon, that holds our society back and slows down human progress towards increasing human wellbeing. It corrupts minds and pollutes our lives with horrendous archaic ethics. Some forms of modern religions inspire people to do horrible things, e.g. flying airplanes into buildings, killing themselves and members of their families, blowing up airports. /This is a statement that deserves a separate post on itself, but let’s move on for now/
It may have become apparent to you now that I do not welcome religion in my life. I am not guided by its ethics and principles when making decisions or choosing right from wrong. However the question remains: is it safe for me to think and openly express this perspective in art?
For a while I have had an urge to create a series of sculptures that expose the ridiculousness of religious beliefs and symbols. Despite my atheism and criticism of religion, whether it’s christianity, islam or judaism, I’m interested in the subject of religion and its impact on man from both the positivist and phenomenological perspectives.
This idea of a sculpture series was simple: a set of three sculptures covering three mainstream religions (judaism, islam and christianity) and an ‘atheistic’ man in the centre of each sculpture surrounded by symbols from a respective religion. Not just surrounded, but also resisting them metaphysically. I also wanted to highlight the damage that is done to my hero by religious beliefs and dogmas.
The moment that idea came to me another thought also appeared instantly. It was like a summer fly in your flat: so annoying yet impossible to catch or make it fly away through an open window. The thought was “Is it safe to do such art?”. I remembered three jihadist attacks on artists in the news in recent years:
- Curtis Culwell Center attack (USA)
- Charlie Hebdo shooting (France)
- Graffiti artist attacked by gang in Paris ghetto for painting the word 'coexist' with Christian, Muslim and Jewish symbols in bid to inspire religious harmony (France)
Expectedly, my thinking was mostly around Islam and a potential threat from its dogmatic followers. It seems to be rather apparent that Christianity and Judaism are less malignant nowadays, especially in the context of a threat to my life.
After thinking about this problem for a couple of weeks I decided to go ahead and make the sculptures. The freedom of expression in spite of such threats allows European culture to develop and for societies to find better values and ethics than religious ones. If I did not express myself, fearing potential threats from religious dogmatists, I would feel suppressed and I would like myself less - it would be wrong.
What would be your decision in a similar situation?
As a final statement to this longish blog post I would like to answer the expected critique from the political left upfront with a quote from Sam Harris. They would categorise my fears with their favourite suffix: -phobia, the most popular accusation in recent years is islamophobia.
‘So “Islamophobia” must be—it really can only be—an irrational, disproportionate, and unjustified fear of certain people, regardless of their ethnicity or any other accidental trait, because of what they believe and to the degree to which they believe it. Thus the relevant question to ask is whether a special concern about people who are deeply committed to the actual doctrines of Islam, in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, is irrational, disproportionate, and unjustified.’ © Sam Harris: Response to Controversy https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/response-to-controversy
This is how the popularity of the term has grown in the recent years, taken by me from google's ngram here.