Catholic Intolerance Vs Freedom of Expression

Source: IPS

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 in hell.

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 unconventional settings.

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 venue.

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 security reasons.

"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.

Fraticelli's works 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.

Fraticelli's installation 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 priest.

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,'" he said.

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 intact.

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 and elsewhere.

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. 29.

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 hell.

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 works.

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 down.

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 action.

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 one.

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)

Marcela Valente