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Tag Archives: still-life-with-absinthe

Is this video controversial? Does depicting Jesus as a gay man “movin’ & groovin’” to some happy disco offend people?

I’ve written at length about how Jesus is portrayed in art because I find it interesting to learn why certain cultural and ethnic groups turn a man of quite clearly Jewish and middle eastern ancestry and “recast” him in the image of the artist. The bible says humans are created in God’s image, yet aren’t we really just creating God in our image?

So what is this particular video trying to tell us? Well, first of all, it’s funny. Putting aside the “blasphemy” of taking a holy figure and making him dance along to Gloria Gaynor on the streets of L.A., we have to admit that Jesus is a malleable public figure readily available for satire. In this particular example, the video ends where the “gay” Jesus is hit by a bus. Aside from the humor, can we also read into this ending to say that because of the “blasphemy” this man is indulging in that his “death” is brought upon by a higher power? In other words, could God be driving that bus to stamp out the sin of the actor? Or is the video saying that no matter how hard the gay community tries to embrace the good aspects of Christianity, conservative society will always come along to crush (hit and run) the movement?

Very often satire is misunderstood by the people being satirized, but who exactly is being satirized in this video? Christianity? Homosexuality? Gloria Gaynor? While it’s easy for people to get worked up over the literal content of such satire, we should always be willing to dig deeper into the meanings of things. A good strong belief in something (religion, for example) should be able to withstand scrutiny and criticism and the believers should be expected to have a deep understanding of what they believe in. When people respond to such criticisms and interpretations of their beliefs, too often they respond with knee-jerk reactions because they are offended on a superficial level. When people burn the American flag, pick up feces with the pages of the bible or dress up as a quasi-drag Jesus, the common reaction is to kill the messenger but little thought is put into the message itself. To clarify, we like to kill a spider when we see it in our home but when we do that we forget the spider may be there to hunt and kill other “disgusting” insects.

Since I do not know the true intentions of the filmmaker, all I can do is place the video within my own context. Had I known where the video came from and knew a little about the artist, I might have a slightly different interpretation of the “intended” message. But good art does not require context, it only requires a) the art and b) an audience – all other considerations are secondary because once the art has been created by the artist, the artist looses control of the art.

1887Van Gogh is no longer alive to tell us what he “intended” by painting “Still Life with Absinthe” in 1887 so we can only look at the painting and make our own conclusions. Of course, we do know a little about Van Gogh’s life. We know he liked to drink absinthe and we know he suffered from mental sickness so we might be able to conclude he just wanted to paint one of his favorite subjects and wanted to immortalize his vice. But we can only infer that interpretation from outside facts not included in the painting so all we really have is just a study on a bottle of booze in a cafe. We have to put our own meaning into the painting and anything Van Gogh intended is beside the point. In a way, the art becomes the intellectual property of the audience.

MapplethorpeArt also says more about the audience than it does about the artist and our reaction to art is sometimes more interesting than the art itself anyway. Remember when you were in high school and somebody said they thought you liked some girl or boy but you denied it up one side and down the other? You may have been “saying” you didn’t like Suzy or Joe but your overreaction to the question made it quite clear you really did like Suzy or Joe. Art, then, works very much the same way. Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography created controversy because many people did not feel his art was appropriate – either because he was funded by a federal program (National Endowment for the Arts) or because his art “can be viewed as fetishizing black men”. While his photographs are “shocking”, the outcry over them is far more interesting because it speaks about the values of the society upset by them.

So does this mean that everything controversial is art? I believe it does not, but we should always be willing to to give someones self expression at least a moments worth of consideration.