Blasphemy! Jesus, the penis, and Conservative Party coffers
It forms part of the exhibition ‘Gone, Yet Still’ by Chinese artist Terence Koh, which also features dozens of plaster figures including Mickey Mouse and ET - all in the same state of arousal.
But this was a blasphemy too far for Emily Mapfuwa, a 40-year-old Christian from Brentwood, who has launched a private prosecution against the gallery for ‘outraging public decency’ and ‘causing harassment, alarm and distress to the public’. Ms Mapfuwa argues the Baltic would not have dared depict the prophet Mohammad in such a way.
Cranmer has no doubt that she is right on the last point, but, as he has previously observed, this is because the UK’s blasphemy laws which once related to Jesus and the Church of England have been repealed and supplanted by a de facto blasphemy law which now protects Mohammed and Allah, all under the guise of the ‘religious hatred’ legislation.
Yet in our postmodern, fractured, fragmented and bewildering world of subjectivity, blasphemy is now very much in the ears and eyes of the beholder. Only recently, the Pope himself became embroiled in the issue of a crucified frog which he deemed blasphemous because it ‘wounds the religious sentiments of so many people who see in the cross the symbol of God's love’. Yet others disagree, rightly noting that tens of thousands of people were crucified, and one is left to conclude that the frog’s name is Brian.
Dr John Hayward of the Jubliee Centre quotes Marshall McLuhan: ‘I think of art, at its most significant, as…a distant early warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.’
Yet McLuhan was not original in this observation: it has its genesis in the words of Shakespeare on play acting. Thus the function of art is ‘to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’.
The contention is that the artist is not therefore guilty of blasphemy, but of holding a mirror up to nature, which is his very vocational task. For it is not the sexual Jesus which is his theme, but the sexualisation of everything, which is the obsession of the very age and body of the time. By devoting so much time, effort and money to issues of sexuality, instead of challenging society by deconstructing the obsession or focusing on poverty and wealth (for example), Christians are simply showing themselves to share the same obsessions as the world. Dr Hayward observes: ‘My guess is that anyone offended by a statue of Jesus with an erection (whether or not they are Christian) is likely to consider any statue with an erection distasteful. Arguably, such a statue could be a celebration of the Son of God's humanity and God's blessing of the sexual nature that he has created us all to have. Clearly, set as it was among a collection of other pop icons, Koh's statue had more to say about the values of modern society.’
The irony, of course, is that by bringing her high-profile case to court, Emily Mapfuwa delivers the gallery and the statue's owner millions of pounds worth of free publicity. The negative reaction or over-reaction therefore compounds the alleged blasphemy, not least because the courts of this world will not uphold Ms Mapfuwa’s interpretation of ‘outrage’ or ‘harassment’. There is simply an insufficient number of Christians rioting in the streets for the peace and security of the realm to be threatened.
But this artistic and theological dispute has become an acutely political one. The Conservative Christian Fellowship is in accord with the charge of blasphemy: 'We have an excellent history in this country of freedom of expression and thought. But we also have a Christian heritage which deserves some respect. A work like this needs to be treated with contempt. The artist was clearly just trying to shock and the people who should answer for it are the people who allowed it to happen. They should be treated with contempt.'
But it transpires that the statue is owned by one Anita Zabludowicz, whose husband, Poju, is the 24th richest man in the country, and has donated £70,000 to the Conservative Party.
Thus the more publicity this exhibition attracts, the more shall Mr Zabludowicz be able to contribute to the Conservative Party’s fighting fund for the next General Election. God bless Emily Mapfuwa!