Last week author Matt Stillman woke to find “BLASPHMY” spray painted in red letters across his front step in New York City. Stillman is the author of “Genesis Deflowered,” an erotic rewriting of the King James Bible’s version of Genesis. In a phone interview, Stillman said:

“The vandal was obviously upset and trying to shut me down, to silence me, to shame me for the book I wrote. Art is a tool for creating new understandings and expressions of ourselves, which is also what religion is for. Any vandalism against art is dangerous and leads to stagnant views of ourselves and our place in the world.”

In this case Stillman’s home was vandalized, but often it’s the art that gets censored or destroyed amid calls of blasphemy.

Monday marked the Center for Inquiry’s fifth annual International Blasphemy Rights Day. Let’s take a look at 12 artists and their works that have been stifled or damaged for exploring themes or depictions some critics consider blasphemous. If you’re likely to be offended, you might want to stop reading here…or you can jump on down to the comments section and sound off.

1. Piss Christ

Piss Christ

An unidentified man discusses the attack on Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. Photo courtesy achrntatrps via Flickr

In 1987 New York artist Andres Serrano photographed a plastic crucifix allegedly submerged in his own urine. He claimed it was a comment on the commercialization and misappropriation of religion. In 2011, amid a surge of Christian fundamentalism in France, Catholic activists stormed a gallery in Avignon and slashed the photo.

2. Innocence of Muslims

Art doesn’t need to be critically acclaimed to provoke outrage. The poorly produced “Innocence of Muslims” video featuring offensive depictions of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad  prompted protests around the world and demands by more than 20 governments that Google remove or block it. Pakistan still hasn’t lifted a ban it implemented on YouTube during the controversy.

3. Danish cartoons

Danish cartoons protests

Protests against the Prophet Muhammad cartoons published in Jyllands-Posten and republished in newspapers around the world. Photo courtesy Sam Graham via Flickr

Before “Innocence of Muslims” there was the Danish cartoons controversy. In 2005 Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad to spark debate around self-censorship and Islam. Outrage at the caricatures fueled violent riots in majority-Muslim countries. In 2009 scholar Jytte Klausen published “The Cartoons that Shook the World.” Much to the author’s dismay, Yale University Press removed reproductions of the actual cartoons from the book before publication, citing foreign policy, national security and safety concerns.

 

4. South Park

It should come as no surprise that the deliberately offensive animated series “South Park” made this list. In 2010 Comedy Central heavily censored an episode depicting Prophet Muhammad in a bear suit amid threats of violence directed at the show’s creators.”South Park” supporters ran an “Everybody Draw Mohammed” competition in response. Please don’t confuse this with our recent (and much less controversial) “Draw the Pope” competition.

5. Jesus “Orgasm”

In 2010 a crowbar-wielding Christian woman destroyed a lithograph titled “The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals.” Critics of the piece saw a buxom Jesus receiving oral sex from a man. The artist Enrique Chagoya said the piece was meant to “critique corruption of the sacred by religious institutions” and to comment on the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal. The attacker, who was charged with criminal mischief, allegedly screamed, “How can you desecrate my Lord?” before tearing the print at a Colorado art museum.

6. Leon Ferrari

Jesus on a plane

A Leon Ferrari piece with Jesus on a war plane Photo courtesy Gabriel Britto via Flickr

The Argentine artist Leon Ferrari was perhaps best known for his seemingly blasphemous works. The Virgin Mary in a blender? Check. Saints in a frying pan? He did that too. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a man we now know as Pope Francis, demanded that a 2004 retrospective in Buenos Aires featuring Ferrari’s work be closed immediately, saying it represented a “blasphemous affront.” A judge agreed, but not before a group of Christians could destroy several works. A different judge later overturned the decision to close the exhibit, citing the importance of free expression in his ruling.

7. Ants on a crucifix

In 2010 the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. removed a video that showed ants crawling on a crucifix after the Catholic League and several House Republicans criticized it as a form of hate speech offensive to Christians. The video, titled “A Fire in My Belly,” was produced by artist David Wojnarowicz who said the sequence was meant to depict the suffering of someone with AIDS.

8. Phallus-faced Jesus

One year after the ant crucifix debacle, the Cultural Centre of the Philippines in Manila hosted an exhibition to specifically showcase blasphemous art. A poster advertising the show featured a phallic unicorn Jesus (go ahead and Google that one on your own). The country’s president Benigno Aquino III voiced opposition to the exhibit, and a local church group threatened legal action on blasphemy grounds. Amid threats and vandalism, the Cultural Centre shut it down. Here’s a clip showing some local reactions to the exhibit:

9. It’s a bird…it’s a plane…it’s blasphemy!

Nepali artist Manish Harijan received death threats last year when his mashup paintings of Hindu gods and western superheroes went on display at a gallery in Kathmandu. The gallery curators called in police backup, but rather than sending in guards, they locked the gallery’s doors. Harijan said that this series, called “The Rise of the Collateral,” represented western influence on eastern religions. That explanation didn’t appease the World Hindu Federation activists who considered it blasphemous.

10. M.F. Husain

One of India’s most celebrated modern artists, Maqbool Fida Husain, died in exile in the U.K. in 2011. He fled his homeland at the age of 90 amid lawsuits and death threats from Hindu extremists who protested and attacked exhibitions featuring his depictions of nude Hindu goddesses.

11. Virgin Mary, quite contrary

Contemporary art features a lot of “mixed media,” but rarely does this term include elephant dung. That’s a central component of Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary,” a painting that also includes collaged vaginas. In 1999 then mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani tried to withdraw funding from the Brooklyn Museum when the painting was featured in one of its exhibitions. This led to a First Amendment case that the museum eventually won, but not before one man threw manure at the museum (reactive performance art?) and another smeared white paint over Ofili’s canvas, calling the work blasphemous.

12. Satanic censorship

Most novelists don’t make it to four books. Most fourth novels don’t ignite global outrage and inspire assassination attempts. Salman Rushdie accomplished both with “The Satanic Verses,” his 1988 novel partly inspired by the Prophet Muhammad. The “blasphemous” book was banned in India, burned in the U.K. and led Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. Threats of violence surrounding the controversy still plague Rushdie. In 2012 he pulled out of a speaking gig at the Jaipur literature festival amid renewed calls for his assassination.

These are 12 of the countless examples I could have listed. Go ahead and add more “blasphemous” art that has been suppressed or destroyed in the comments section below.

And while you’re down there, why not chime in on an old debate? Should believers (or nonbelievers) ever have the right not to be offended?

16 Comments

  1. There is no genuine art anywhere when anyone tries to stifle the personal expression of anyone else. The solution is simple. If you do not like the work of an artist, don’t look at it, don’t study it, don’t attend the display–or walk out. This is yet another attempt by religion to control everyone else. Creating art and viewing art is no different than speaking and listening or writing and reading. It is basic to human freedom. No one has the right to control any aspect of expression as long as it is not forced on anyone else as these religious cranks are attempting to force their religious views and values on others.

  2. Religion can and will be criticized and even insulted-and it will be, and the religious fanatics better get used to it. When they start reacting violently like they do in the middle east we have the right to defend ourselves even if we have to use our guns to do it.

  3. All of it is blasphemous. You really call that art? True art is beautiful, inspiring, creative and emotionally captivating. That of which I saw on the list is not art, its just disturbing images from the minds of fools & pervert’s. It’s blasphemy because its the crime of assuming (which is for idiots, know the facts first) to oneself the rights or qualities of God!

    • Facts? Religion is based on faith not facts. Faith that an invisible man tells us it’s ok to kill as long as it is in his name.

      READ your religious text, then decide who is the idiot.

  4. See Sister Wendy’s wise words concerning Serrano’s “Piss Christ” and on the dangers of judging art too quickly:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9pAKdkJh-Y

  5. Earold Gunter

    Like beauty, art is in the eye of the beholder. Although I am not a believer, I find some religious art absolutely beautiful. I also find some of the things other people call art, not what I would call art, as I think all people do. However it is precisely this reason we should not censor creativity.

    Consider living life, and loving people, without needing to believe in any reward for doing so, or punishment for not.
    Good day!

  6. wanderingwacky

    I think anyone has the right to diss anyone’s beliefs. I’ve been prayed for, told I’m going to hell, and had people ostracize me for choosing not to believe in a single one of the 2870 deities that humans have worshiped since the invention of writing. Let me tell you some of the ways religion offends me:
    I’m offended that churches are tax-exempt institutions and are amongst the richest in the world, and have the wealth and means to eradicate poverty, famine, and many diseases, and instead only give a very tiny percentage to those things, and of course the aid is dependent on the acceptance of a religion. I’m offended that a man can throw acid in his wife’s face or kill his daughter without any consequence. I’m offended that adults are permitted to have sex with children, who cannot give consent. I’m offended that children are mutilated. I’m offended that beliefs have caused young people to feel so horrible about themselves that they end their own lives. I’m offended when I hear “god had a plan” or “it was god’s will” after a natural disaster or a school shooting. I’m offended when some man who will never have to make a choice tells a woman she’s a sinner/whore/murderer for making her choice about her body. I’m even more offended that those same men refuse to fund sex education, free birth control or indeed any program that may help those fetuses after they’re born. I’m offended when I hear someone say “I prayed and god granted my prayer!!” when millions of starving, diseased and suffering innocents are simply praying for their misery to end and get nothing.
    A lot of things offend me about religion, but I don’t desecrate churches or temples, I don’t demand that the crosses be removed. I don’t go around ripping down signs for church dinners or worship services, I don’t burn bible and quarans, and I certainly won’t tell you you can’t believe in whatever you want.
    Because I am NOT threatened. Because the things I know to be true don’t cause any cognitive dissonance in my life. Because I know that eventually we will grow up as a species and quit hurting each other over fairy tales.
    You scream about blasphemy because you see that day coming, and you are too weak and frightened to live in this life of reality, to live for the right now, because you know deep down this is all there is, and it scares the crap out of you.
    But please don’t be offended when I want to point out what a hypocritical idiot you are for not seeing the truth in front of you.

  7. No, we do not have the right to not be offended. People take themselves and their sensitivities way, WAY too seriously.

    You do not get some sort of special rights just because you’re offended by a thing. You’re certainly entitled to like or not like anything you want, but that’s pretty much where it begins and where it ends. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it, don’t look at it, don’t read it. And while you’re at it, here’s a free tip: don’t promote it by raising a sanctimonious, self-righteous stink. Yes, every time you throw yourself a tantrum someone new learns about the thing you’re complaining about. Ain’t irony a bitch?

    Anyway, the point is we all like what we like. It’s completely possible to enjoy the things you like while simultaneously avoiding the things you don’t. AND it’s perfectly possible to do the like/dislike thing without transforming yourself into a violent, overzealous, judgmental freak. It’s true! I do it every single day! The things I don’t appreciate, I make a wide circle around. I continue on with my happy existence and don’t waste even 5 seconds allowing someone else’s artistic expression to ruin my day. If it sucks, I’m happy to say so. Then I walk away, never to think of it again.

    Blasphemy … what a friggin’ joke of a concept: arrogance, self-loathing, inferiority complex, all rolled into one big, grotesque ball of hate, judgement, disrespect, and nonacceptance.

    All these biblical edicts I see preached about so hard and heavy, why is it none of them are actually =practiced= by so-called true believers? Is your faith so fragile and shaky that lashing out at any challenge is the only way you can maintain your weak grasp? “Love thy neighbor” is somehow conditional? It only counts as long as your neighbor is exactly the same as you? Yeah, that makes all kinds of sense. But then again, there’s nothing logical about zealotry, is there?

    Anyway, long story short: NO! you do not have the right to not be offended. Period.

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