Saturday, May 03, 2008

Sooreh Hera

The situation surrounding the display of the work of Iranian photographer Sooreh Hera in a Dutch museum raise several questions regarding art, religion, and freedom of speech. First, let me make some comments on the work itself, which can be seen here. Then I will talk about the religious issues. Finally, I will talk about freedom of speech and Western culture.

To be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of photography as art. You have to really do something spectacular for me to even agree that a photograph is art. Any idiot can take a picture, and with a sufficient number of photographs, any idiot can take a great photograph. The same cannot be said of painting, sculpting, acting, writing poetry, or any of the other traditional arts. However, that having been said, there are a few ways one can push a photograph over the top: 1) through effects that can only be accomplished through the use of a camera and/or photograph development, or 2) through arrangement, in which case the arrangement itself is the art, while the photograph works to record the work. Take a picture of a mountain or some trees, and as far as I'm concerned, it's not art. That's an example of something anyone can do -- and you don't have to have any special talents to do it. With these criteria, Hera's work fits into the second category of photography as art, and it is precisely the subject and arrangement which is causing all the problems.

Personally, I find Hera's work to be boring. She's trying too hard to be shocking, and when someone tries to be shocking, most of the time the only thing they manage to do is create something that isn't all that interesting after the first time. I do find this photograph to be quite interesting simply because of the split tan. The backwards tie also reminds me a bit of several of Magritte's paintings, where emphasis is directed toward the head (or lack thereof). But the last set of pictures, where she uses backward-worn masks, itself an interesting idea, is where the problem lies. I like the idea of the backward-worn masks, but the use of Muhammad and Ali makes it clear that she was more interested in the shock element rather than the artistic one. Which is a shame, because she takes away from what she is doing artistically.

Now, as a propaganda piece, she has done exactly what she wanted: shocked people and challenged their beliefs. I have no problem with that, but let's call it what it is: propaganda. When the message is the point, we have propaganda, not art (no matter how artistic that propaganda may be). We can also have propagandistic art, where the point is the art, with the message secondary to and submissive to the artistic elements, but I don't think that's the case with Hera's work. Not that this can't be debated, of course. But her explanation of what she did and why suggests it was intended as propaganda first, art second.

So certainly Muslims have as much a right to be offended by this piece as Christians have to be offended by Piss Christ. The difference seems to be that Christians in the 21st century are much less likely to kill you over offensive work which insults the religion than are Muslims. However, if you consider the fact that Islam is currently in a Medieval mindset, all we have to do is look to the way the Catholic church reacted to such works to understand why they react the way they do. Not that this excuses murder or even threat of murder, but it does help us understand what we are facing, and why we in the West both do not react this way and are flabbergasted when others do.

That being said, Hera is working and showing in a Western country. Should she go out of her way to offend someone's religious beliefs? It depends on whether or not you think she's being brave or just being a jerk. Should she be able to offend someone's religious beliefs without facing a real threat of being murdered? Definitely. We have to defend her right to say what we may nonetheless find offensive. Those who are offended may feel free to engage in any activity against her that does not involve either force or the threat of force, such as picketing or boycotting the places where she shows, and we should support those people's right to freedom of speech as well.

When we say something is offensive, it is we who are taking offense. The person is just doing what they are doing. It is our interpretation of what they are doing that result in our taking offense or not. Thus, you are the one responsible for being offended at something, not the one whose work you are offended at. So offense is something that shouldn't even be actionable, let alone something that gets you killed.

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