please keep art safe

Please Keep Art Safe, 1995

On the October 3, 1992 live broadcast of Saturday Night Live, Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor was the evening’s musical guest. She performed an a capella version of Bob Marley’s War, changing the lyric of “racism” to “child abuse.” And while singing the final lyric “evil,” O’Connor held up a photograph of Pope John Paul II, tore it to bits, and declared to the audience, “fight the real enemy.”  Silence followed. Cut to commercial.

The producers of SNL were caught off guard and received over 3000 calls of protest. O’Connor defended her actions calling to task the Catholic Church for allowing the abuse of children by clergy to go unchecked (strangely prescient considering recent revelations of abuse in the church). Over the ensuing weeks O’Connor was generally vilified – three weeks later at a Bob Dylan tribute concert in Madison Square Garden, she was booed off the stage.

To Catholics and many others, Sinéad O’Connor’s defiling of a photo of the Pope was an act of blasphemy. And it may sound surprising, but if not for a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1940, O’Connor could have been arrested and prosecuted for inciting breach of the peace and criminal blasphemy.

Back in 1939, Newton Cantwell, a Jehovah’s Witness, along with his two sons were proselytizing in a Catholic neighborhood in Connecticut. Carrying a portable phonograph and literature, the three went knocking door to door.  They played for two gentleman a record that described all organized religious systems as “instruments of Satan,” and called out the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Deeply offended, the men basically wanted to throttle the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but instead called the police. They were arrested and convicted for inciting breach of the peace among other charges.

Flammable, 1995

The Cantwells appealed and claimed that they were denied their freedom of speech and  prohibited their free exercise of religion under the first Amendment. The 1940 Supreme Court agreed unanimously and set a precedent that basically made any previous laws against blasphemy in the US a dead letter.  The 1940 decision explains, that “the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor.” And that in a democracy an individual’s right to resort to exaggeration and vilification are liberties “essential to enlightened opinion.” And under the “shield” of these liberties, “many types of life, character, opinion, and belief can develop unmolested and unobstructed.”

That an individual has the right to offend someone, and even to do so deeply, to make their point – in speech, writing, art, performance, film, etc. – is a tremendous right. It protects from criminal prosecution, but it does not protect from outrage, rejection, and recrimination. The “Culture Wars” and “Political Correctness” of the nineties showcased how to better control unsafe expression. There was the gutting of the NEA’s budget and the addition of “advisory language” regarding decency in grant applications. Both in reaction to funding a retrospective of the sexual explicit photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the photograph by Andres Serrano of a crucifix immersed in his own urine.  Or there was the prosecution of University of Pennsylvania student Eden Jacobowitz under the school’s speech code. He was accused of intending “water buffalo” to be a racial epithet yelled at some late night noisemakers who happened to be black.

Corrosive, 1995

A return to the days of prosecuting for blasphemous statements may not be possible. (In 1811 People v. Ruggles, the conviction of a New Yorker was upheld for saying “Jesus Christ was a bastard and his mother must be a whore.” NY Supreme Court Justice Hale affirmed that the danger of of blasphemy lay in its tendency to “strike at the root of moral obligation” and called blasphemous “words and actions dangerous to the public welfare.”)  So the preference became to find ways to encourage self-censorship. If unsure whether a particular piece of speech may be offensive to some or most individuals, it’s better left unsaid.

cross symmetry

Sameness & Difference Cross , 1995

My mother would implore me to hold the cross higher, “You’re so tall, you can hold the cross higher than anyone else. Use your height.”

I was an acolyte for an Episcopalian church for a number of years. I started as a torch bearer for the youth procession after Sunday school. Three of us would run after class to the back of the church, put on our frocks and blouses, and lead the other kids into church with a cross and two torches. I eventually became the cross bearer for the main procession at the start of the service, leading in the way for the pastor and clergy. The height to which I lifted the cross was a point of pride for my mother.

As an acolyte, you never actually sat with your family. The six of us, cross and torch bearers for the service and for the youth procession, sat in the front pew alone. We often got  into trouble for not being the model Episcopalian youth we were supposed to be. We would stand, kneel, and sit when asked, but we rarely read from the prayer book or sang from the hymnal when we should have. We’d open to the pages we were supposed to, but only to check them off a list of the various portions of the service. I would actually use my fingernail and “strikeout” each part of the mass listed on the weekly program.

I also spent grades 1-5 in a Catholic school and four years as an undergraduate at a Catholic college. I didn’t intend to surround myself with so much formal religious culture given that I’ve never felt comfortable with all the rituals and symbols, and was never a deep believer in what they were to represent. That there was a system of belief certain of “the way,” just seemed silly. How could you know for sure?

Maybe it was the science side of my brain, which would question, “show me the proof!” And I wasn’t looking for someone to prove to me that God exists, but that these religious words, symbols, and actions were the answer, the only answer.

(0, 0, 0) Origin Cross, 1995

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I spent a year in a chemistry Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. By the end of the year I knew I would leave for art school and would not join a research group.  But I was still required to take a research course to finish my Master’s degree. The chair of the department suggested a mini research project that he felt would be appropriate given my change in academic pursuits. The final project was titled Quasicrystals, Ancient Building Science, and the Golden Mean. It was followed by a quote from the mathematician Roger Penrose:

It is a mysterious thing in fact how something which looks attractive may have a better chance of being true than something which looks ugly.

Penrose was speaking about the researcher’s desire for the more aesthetically pleasing solution to be the right solution. This was how I introduced the presentation’s survey of examples in art, science, and religion where symmetry is used to find “perfect” answers. In the process I was introduced to molecular symmetry based in group theory that is a system used to classify molecules by their symmetry. Molecules fall into different symmetrical groups and each group reveals various fundamental properties.

Cross Symmetry analyzes the symmetry of different crosses, as an ancient architect would use the “perfect human form” as a guide to build the Parthenon.

James A. Kane, Ancient Building Science, 1940

This new cross symmetry system became a way to affirm, deny, or qualify the value of each crucifix.

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