A hot topic

Two decades ago, there raged a mini-controversy over an intentionally provocative piece of art with the intentionally provocative name of “Piss Christ.” 

Created by an artist named Andres Serrano, it involved a crucifix floating in urine and then photographed. The outrage was immediate, and protests erupted in a number of places, including Australia. Of course, the intelligentsia was shocked, shocked that anyone was shocked. The debate quickly became about artistic freedom, and its critics portrayed as philistines. 

That was then, the Quran burning is now, and the commentators on religious provocation have been expressing grave concern about the threatened — now canceled — burning of 200 Qurans by a Florida preacher. 

The controversy surrounding the Rev. Terry Jones of Gainesville, Fla., was in many ways a media creation. Jones is a rather bedraggled preacher with 50 followers, a questionable past and a lot of debt. He hit upon a great attention-getting device: burning the Quran as a protest of some sort on the anniversary of 9/11. 

Thanks primarily to the round-the-clock news coverage and commentary that focused on him leading up to the anniversary — far more than the latest round of the Middle East peace talks, for starters — Jones was able to cause street riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan, provoke generals and presidents to pontificate about him, and cause widespread tongue-clucking among the enlightened, as well as fervent defenses of his free speech right to mightily offend a billion people. 

The immediate lesson would seem to be that the more outlandish and outrageous the event, the better to garner worldwide publicity. The fact that the reverend’s planned bonfire was planned for Sept. 11 turned the most traumatic day in U.S. history since Pearl Harbor into a carnival freak show. 

In recalling the debate over the Serrano outrage, one can’t help but speculate on comparisons between Jones’ bit of provocation and Serrano’s, as well as on how various interest groups chose to react. 

For example, if Jones had decided to make the Quran burning a moment of artistic expression, would it have been OK? What if the reverend had been a performance artist? Would the people who so roundly criticized him for being a backwoods hick with a box of matches instead have called him a hero? Was the reverend’s mistake, really, that he did not live in New York and conduct the burning in an art gallery? 

At the same time, does it take riots, death threats and endangering the lives of American soldiers to convince people that respecting what others considered sacred is not a sign of weakness but of simple civility? The Quran, understood to be the literal and unchanging word of God by Muslims, is much more than a book. In its own way, it is more sacred to them than Muhammad himself, and the desecration of it is much more than a garden-variety outrage. 

Jaded westerners have lived for more than a century with the artistic conceit that the smashing of a taboo — by which we mean a belief held dear by others but not by the smasher — is the role of art. 

In the topsy-turvy world we live in, some of those who supported Serrano opposed Jones, and vice versa. What is still missing, however, is any appreciation of how civil discourse on matters of such passionate belief should be conducted, as well as the role of the news media in propagating the acts of provocateurs. As a people, we didn’t seem to learn much after the Serrano affair. I’m afraid we are at risk of learning just as little after the inflammatory reverend. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.