Intolerance Vs Freedom of Expression
Ultra-conservative protestors and Catholic
church authorities in Argentina have launched furious attacks on three
art exhibitions in recent weeks, and have succeeded in shutting two
of them down, on the grounds that they are an insult to Christianity.
BUENOS AIRES, Jan 1
(IPS) - The first of the censored shows, closed to the public on Dec.
17, featured the works of renowned Argentine artist León Ferrari, 84,
who says his greatest sin was having confessed that he doesn't believe
Ferrari's Buenos Aires
exhibit depicted images of Catholic saints, Jesus Christ and the Virgin
Mary in a blender, an electric toaster and a frying pan, among other
Shortly after its opening
on Nov. 29, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, declared
that the exhibition was "blasphemous" and demanded its closure.
His words inspired a
handful of fanatics to destroy a number of the works while shouting,
"Long live Christ the king." Later, over 5,000 Catholics took part in
a "mass of reparation" to the Virgin Mary outside the building where
the show was taking place.
At the peak of the controversy,
an exhibit by artist Roque Fraticelli at City Hall in Córdoba, Argentina
was cancelled by the local authorities before it had even opened. Fraticelli's
works also featured Catholic saints, a fact that angered ultra-conservative
fanatics and sparked death threats against the artist. The Archbishop
of Córdoba, Carlos Nuñez, said he felt "offended" and "concerned" that
an exhibition of works of this kind was to be held in a municipal government
Fraticelli, a native
of Córdoba, told IPS, "They insulted me and threatened to burn me alive.
I've never experienced anything like it."
The artist said there
was an "incredible coincidence" with the events surrounding Ferrari's
exhibit, adding that he was incensed by the fact that the authorities
had caved in to the demands of "fanatics with a lot of money."
The mayor of Córdoba,
Luis Juez, claimed that the decision to cancel the show was based on
"Public spaces belong
to the citizens, and if one of those citizens feels offended or morally
affronted by something that takes place there, then as the authorities
responsible, we cannot allow it to happen," he said.
formed part of a larger group show, for which 10 artists were asked
to contribute their views on Christmas. The artists had planned to mount
an installation in each room of City Hall, but the controversy led the
entire exhibition to be called off before its Dec. 21 opening.
was to feature the Virgin Mary involved in a sexual act with a man with
a bird's head, symbolising the Holy Spirit.
When word of the piece's
content got out, priest Julián Espina went to City Hall accompanied
by angry Catholics, and warned the artist that if necessary, he would
"use his fists" to defend the "mother of the heavens" (the Virgin Mary).
"I am a citizen who
has the right to be spared from seeing this kind of filth," stated the
The artist was shocked
by the reaction. "One of them was weeping, staring up at the sky, gripping
the fence around City Hall and screaming, 'I'm going to kill you,'"
Somewhat less severe
was the attack on the Virgin Mary statues with doll's heads featured
in an installation by María Belén Lagar, on display at the Elsi del
Río private art gallery in Buenos Aires.
A group of young Catholics
threw stones at the statues, saying that the installation was an "insult"
to their beliefs and demanding its removal. The gallery's windows were
shattered, but the Virgin Mary statues themselves miraculously survived
Without a doubt, however,
the most resounding controversy was the one surrounding Ferrari's works,
particularly given the wide media coverage it attracted.
Ferrari is considered
by his peers as Argentina's most important living political artist.
He introduced conceptual art to this South American country in the 1960s,
and his works form part of the collections of the New York Museum of
Modern Art, among other prestigious institutions in the United States
The Buenos Aires municipal
government offered to hold a retrospective of his works at the Recoleta
Cultural Centre, a city government-run arts facility. Ferrari submitted
around 400 pieces, encompassing ceramics, sculptures, drawings, engravings,
collages and other media, for the exhibition scheduled to open Nov.
The scandal was sparked
by the fact that roughly a third of the pieces denounced the cruelty
reflected in Catholic imagery, particularly in scenes meant to represent
Ferrari maintains that
these images of punishment and suffering serve to exalt the "torture"
of those who think differently, which is why he has chosen to create
images in which the victims are the sacred figures of the Catholic church.
Statuettes of the Virgin
Mary in a blender, saints and popes in a frying pan, and Jesus Christ
on a U.S. air force fighter plane in free fall were among the more controversial
Protests soon erupted.
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio accused the artist of "blasphemy" in an open
letter, and a group of Catholic lawyers called for the show to be shut
A handful of fanatics
also burst into the cultural centre and smashed several of the pieces
on display, accidentally injuring a woman who was visiting the exhibition
at the time.
On Dec. 17, a judge
ordered the city government to close the Ferrari retrospective, because
it "wounded the sensibilities of Christians." According to her sentence,
the show invaded the privacy of practising Catholics, who constitute
a majority and subsequently had the right to impose their will in having
the exhibition shut down.
The Buenos Aires municipal
government obeyed the ruling but filed an appeal, on the grounds of
freedom of expression. It is now up to the Court of Appeals to reach
a decision, but if a final ruling is delayed, an order to reopen the
exhibition could come after it is scheduled to end, in February.
Fraticelli pointed out
that at least 30,000 people managed to see Ferrari's works, while in
his own case, the show was never even allowed to open. Moreover, the
other nine artists taking part in the same group show were also unable
to exhibit their works, which has led them to consider pursuing legal
The closure of the Ferrari
retrospective led thousands to take to the streets on Dec. 19 for an
anti-censorship demonstration. The artist thanked the protestors, while
also extending tongue-in-cheek gratitude to the Catholic church for
the publicity generated by the scandal. He added that the public's response
had essentially provided the finishing touch to the project as a whole.
The son of an artist
who painted churches, Ferrari has a knowledge of religious art rivalled
by very few. From his perspective, the works of masters like Michelangelo,
Giotto and Luca Signorelli are "marvellous in form but terrible in content,"
because they "show, approve, applaud and exalt torture."
"This whole controversy
can be summed up in one simple fact," the artist told the Argentine
press after the show's closure. "I am against torture, and Christianity
supports it," he said, adding that the issue is not solely a religious
In the United States,
Ferrari said, 65 percent of the population believes in the existence
of hell, "which means that they believe it is right for those who think
differently to be tortured. So why wouldn't the (George W.) Bush government
torture Iraqis, who are infidels?" he concluded. (END/2004)