Banksy and the Cardinal Sin of Blasphemy

By Cressida Smart

The unveiling of a controversial Banksy sculpture this week coincided with David Cameron’s speech whereby he stated that the UK is a Christian country. Banksy follows a long line of figures in art and literature who have spoken out against religion. However, when it comes to airing controversial views on Christianity, I would argue their treatment is less favourable than offensive material against other world religions.

Last week, Banksy displayed his latest work of art. He installed a vandalized sculpture of a priest in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool entitled Cardinal Sin. It depicts a bust with its face sawn off and replaced by blank tiles, designed as a response to the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. The sculpture sits alongside 17th Century religious art with an altarpiece painted for the Archbishop of Seville by the Spanish artist Murillo in 1673, and Rubens’ painting The Virgin and Child with St Elizabeth and the Child Baptist.

It is not the art per se that is offensive. After all, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. It is the accompanying statement to Cardinal Sin that I would deem inappropriate and a naive. Banksy said “The statue? I guess you could call it a Christmas present. At this time of year it’s easy to forget the true meaning of Christianity – the lies, the corruption, the abuse.”

I hate to disappoint Banksy, but lies and corruption are not exclusive to Christianity – they have always existed in mankind. Indeed, many would argue they are two apt ways to describe politics. Furthermore, his target is hardly groundbreaking. Everyone has had their say on the abuse scandal surrounding the Catholic Church. In some ways it is rather cowardly of Banksy to produce this sculpture and make belligerent remarks. With his identity well kept, it is easy to make such strong and controversial statements. He does not have to face those who disagree or have to explain himself further.

What I would ask is why Christianity must be continually berated without action being taken? Heaven forbid any other world religions are picked on. In fact, one of the most famous examples involving Islam that springs to mind resulted in death threats, protests and bombings. In 1988, the publication of The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie caused immediate controversy because of what was perceived as an irreverent depiction of the prophet Muhammad.

In 1989, a fatwā requiring Rushdie’s execution was proclaimed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran at the time, calling the book “blasphemous against Islam”. A bounty was offered for Rushdie’s death, and he was forced to live under police protection for several years. So far, it would appear that the only response came from the Islam community, thereby if Christians are offended by Banksy’s work, they should be the ones protesting. Yet on 7 March 1989, the UK and Iran broke diplomatic relations over the Rushdie controversy. Can you imagine a diplomatic incident involving the Vatican and the UK over Banksy’s sculpture?

Banksy isn’t the first artist to create controversial religious art. In 1987, photographer Andres Serrano produced a photograph, Piss Christ, of a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of what appears to be a yellow liquid. Serrano described the substance as being his own urine. The photograph was one of a series of photographs that Serrano had made that involved classical statuettes submerged in various fluids—milk, blood and urine.

Without Serrano’s explanation, the viewer would not necessarily be able to differentiate between the stated medium of urine and a medium of similar appearance, such as amber or polyurethane. Serrano has not ascribed overtly political content to Piss Christ and related artworks, on the contrary stressing their ambiguity. He has also said that while this work is not intended to denounce religion, it alludes to a perceived commercialising or cheapening of Christian icons in contemporary culture.

Despite the work being controversial and receiving a frosty reception by some, it hardly made worldwide news.  During a retrospective of Serrano’s work at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1997, the then Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell, sought an injunction from the Supreme Court of Victoria to restrain the National Gallery of Victoria from publicly displaying Piss Christ, which was not granted.  In 1996, Chris Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary, depicted a black African Mary surrounded by images from blaxploitation movies and close-ups of female genitalia cut from pornographic magazines.

Compare, however, the reactions to art that is blasphemous against Islam.  In 2001, prior to 9/11, American magazine Time printed an illustration of Muhammad along with the Archangel Gabriel waiting for a message from God. The magazine apologised for printing the illustration after widespread protests in Kashmir. In 2010, the New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art quietly withdrew all images of Mohammed from display out of fear of some Muslims who say the images are blasphemous.

David Cameron said it was wrong to suggest that standing up for Christianity was “somehow doing down other faiths” in a speech in Oxford on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. He called for a revival of traditional Christian values to counter Britain’s “moral collapse”. He continued, “We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so.”. He is right. Why are Christians mocked for standing up for their beliefs or displaying outrage at blasphemous statements?  Blasphemy sadly appears in every religion and yet the reactions towards it differ with each belief.

I would ask why it is more accepted to openly criticise Christianity than it is to contradict other world religions, such as Islam, be that in a depiction of Muhammad or even linking Islam with terrorism.  For all those like Banksy, who believe that Christianity is lies, corruption and abuse, can I expect, that in no way do you participate in Christmas? For if you do, you are taking part in a holiday that celebrates the birth of Christ, the heart of Christianity.

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