Palm Sunday seems an opportune time to mention how religious sensitivity all too often seeks to muzzle artistic expression and freedom of speech in the U.S. You may have heard of Cosimo Cavallaro’s 200 lb. milk chocolate sculpture of Jesus on the cross called My Sweet Lord that was getting religious nutcase Bill Donohue so up in arms last week, leading to some threatening-sounding language while calling for a boycott of the hotel that houses the gallery where the sculpture was to be displayed during Holy Week:
As I’ve said many times before, Lent is the season for non-believers to sow seeds of doubt about Jesus. What’s scheduled to go on at the Roger Smith Hotel, however, is of a different genre: this is hate speech. And choosing Holy Week–the display opens on Palm Sunday and ends on Holy Saturday–makes it a direct in-your-face assault on Christians.
All those involved are lucky that angry Christians don’t react the way extremist Muslims do when they’re offended–otherwise they may have more than their heads cut off. James Knowles, President and CEO of the Roger Smith Hotel (interestingly, he also calls himself Artist-in-Residence), should be especially grateful. And if he tries to spin this as reverential, then he should substitute Muhammad for Jesus and display him during Ramadan.
Friday, it was reported that the hotel caved in to the pressure:
NEW YORK (AP) — A planned Holy Week exhibition of a nude, anatomically correct chocolate sculpture of Jesus Christ was canceled Friday amid complaints from Catholics, including Cardinal Edward Egan.
The “My Sweet Lord” display was shut down by the hotel that houses the Lab Gallery in Manhattan, said Matt Semler, the gallery’s creative director. Semler said he resigned after officials at the Roger Smith Hotel shut down the show.
The artwork was created from more than 200 pounds of milk chocolate and features Christ with his arms outstretched as if on an invisible cross. Unlike the typical religious portrayal of Christ, the artwork does not include a loincloth.
The 6-foot sculpture was the victim of “a strong-arming from people who haven’t seen the show, seen what we’re doing,” Semler said. “They jumped to conclusions completely contrary to our intentions.”
But word of the confectionary Christ infuriated Catholics, including Egan, who described it as “a sickening display.” Bill Donohue, head of the watchdog Catholic League, said it was “one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever.”
The hotel and the gallery were overrun Thursday with angry phone calls and e-mails. Semler said the calls included death threats over the work of artist Cosimo Cavallaro, who was described as disappointed by the decision to cancel the display. (Watch Cavallaro touch up the sculpture, explain its purpose )
“In this situation, the hotel couldn’t continue to be supportive because of a fear for their own safety,” Semler said.
Westerners, including me, justifiably bemoaned how Muslims rioted and threatened the Danish cartoonists who published cartoons of Mohammed last year. It was truly an example of how religious sensitivity cannot stand satire or mockery of religion. Donohue is full of crap (as usual) when he labels this exhibit “hate speech.”
Far be it from me, though, to say that people cannot speak out against that which offends them and shouldn’t organize boycotts if they feel strongly about something. However, I can’t help but point out that the reaction of the Catholic League is different from the reaction of Muslims last year to the Mohammed cartoons only in degree. It’s the very same impulse at work here: To silence the infidel by any means available. Donohue may point out that the artist is “lucky” that Christians don’t act the same way that extremist Muslims do when they’re offended, but he’s being disingenuous. The death threats received by the hotel staff reveal that at least some Christians do, in fact, act exactly the same way that extremist Muslims do when they perceive an offense against their religion. Donohue may whine when the gallery’s creative director likens the actions of the Catholic League to issuing a fatwa, but there is a grain of truth there, given that there’s little doubt that Donohue’s inflammatory rhetoric is inspiring some “Christians” to threaten violence. He’s been all over the media calling this a “direct in-your-face assault on Christians,”declaration of war on Christian sensibilities,” and “hate speech.” Joan Walsh got it right when she wrote:
Ah, but no troubling mysteries for Big Bill Donohue! No suggesting Catholics and other Christians have commercialized Easter! No suggesting that Jesus was chocolate-colored! There are anti-Catholic bigots to fight, or better yet, to invent. Cavallaro’s “My Sweet Lord” struck me as, well, sweet. It definitely didn’t scream “NAKED JESUS–GENITALS EXPOSED–CRUCIFIED.” But then, like so much art, it’s a bit of a Rorschach test, and Donohue’s horror at the big chocolate Jesus gives us much more disturbing insight into his character than into Cosimo Cavallaro’s.
Here’s a novel idea for Mr. Donohue: If you don’t like the exhibit, just don’t go to it. What a radical concept! Of course, it’ll never happen. Donohue has learned that his ranting gives him power, the power to squelch what he perceives as attacks on Catholicism (whether they are in fact attacks or not or simply something that offends Mr. Donohue’s reactionary sensibilities) and, failing that, the power to get his message into all the major media outlets. He’s not likely to change when his present bullying tactics work so well for him.