TOPICS: Are we scared of Islam?
Recently, I went to the East End of London to witness the death of the avant-garde. At first glance, Gilbert and George’s Sonofagod Pictures: Was Jesus Heterosexual?’exhibition at the White Cube did not look like a wake. The bright and glistening gallery is in Hoxton, a corner of town that has been full of life since it was colonised and gentrified by ‘Young British Artists’ in the early Nineties. As fashionable visitors move between its loft conversions and cafes, ‘edgy’ is the highest compliment they can bestow and ‘taboo’ the gravest insult.
In prose that might embarrass an estate agent, novelist Michael Bracewell said in the catalogue that Gilbert and George were engaged ‘in rebellion, an assault on the laws and institutions of superstition and religious belief’. Gilbert and George still get a ‘frisson of excitement’ by including ‘f-words, turds, semen, their own pallid bodies and other affronts to bourgeois sensibilities’ in their work, wrote a journalist with the impeccably bourgeois name of Cassandra Jardine in the Daily Telegraph. ‘Is it the perfect Christmas card to send George Bush at Easter? Yeah,’ added groovy Waldemar Januszczak of the Sunday Times.
Their justifications for edgy art won’t work any longer and not only because the average member of the educated bourgeoisie likes nothing better than f-words and pallid bodies on a visit to the theatre or gallery. After the refusal of the entire British press to print innocuous Danish cartoons, the stench of death is in the air. It is now ridiculous and impossible to talk about a fearless disregard for easily offended sensibilities. Sonofagod is clearly trading under a false prospectus. Gilbert and George narcissistically present themselves as icons towering over a shrivelled Christ. The gallery owners know that Catholics will be offended, they won’t harm them. That knowledge invalidates their claims to be transgressive. An uprising that doesn’t provoke a response isn’t a ‘rebellion’, but a smug affirmation of the cultural status quo.
If they were to do the same to Islam, all hell would break loose. In interviews publicising the show, Gilbert and George showed that they at least understood the double standard. They’re gay men who live in the East End where the legal groups of the Islamic far right — Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Muslim Association of Britain — are superseded by semi-clandestine organisations which push leaflets through their door saying: ‘Verily, it is time to rejoice in the coming state of Islam. There will be no negotiation with Islam.’ Even if the artists found the audacity to take on the theocrats around them, they know no gallery would dare show the results.
The fear of being murdered is a perfectly rational one, but it is eating away at the cultural elite’s myths. The insincerity extends way beyond the arts. Rory Bremner will tear into Tony Blair, but not Mohammed Khatami. Newspaper editors will print pictures of servicemen beating up demonstrators in Basra, which may place the lives of British troops in danger, but not Danish cartoons, which may place their own lives in danger. — The Guardian