April 3rd, 2007 by Menachem Wecker
Kenneth Humphreys is editor, publisher and founder of jesusneverexisted.com. He spoke with Iconia about admiring religious art as an atheist, about art’s role in propagating religion and anti-religious art.
MW: What role, in your mind, has art played in spreading religion and convincing people of its truthfulness? Is it your opinion that crucifixions (by way of example) were instrumental in solidifying religious doctrine in the minds of worshippers, or was it the case that crucifixions became so popular in art, because worshippers were already “sold” on the doctrine? Or both perhaps?
KH: The role of art in the propagation of the faith is incontrovertible. In an illiterate age art provided a readily understood “cartoon” style representation of myth and theology. Its early, iconic form strengthened “brand recognition”. Popularity was hardly the issue. In Christian Europe, for example, art was sanctioned and commissioned by the Church. As sacred imagery it could not embrace the whimsy of the artist, who was merely an artisan giving visual form to pre-existing ideas.
I see no reason to suppose religious art spread truth; rather, it spread a very precise and acceptable “truth”.
MW: Along similar lines, what role has anti-religious art or art that is critical of religion played in the history of religion? Do you have a favorite piece or favorite pieces of art that critiques religion? Are you familiar with Ernst’s “The Virgin Spanking The Christ Child Before Three Witnesses”?
KH: Was there anti-religious art before the modern era? Like anti-religious literature, even oblique criticisms were not likely to bring the artist a long or happy life! Periodic iconoclasm, of course, did refresh the tableaux. The prohibitions of Islam, not there in the very early period, did give rise to Islam’s wonderful calligraphy and design work. Some anti-popery art followed from the Reformation. The French Revolution freed a refreshing wave of anti-clerical art, as did the Russian Revolution. In the current age of strident religious lunacy we need a new wave of seriously anti-religious art – and yes, I love Ernst’s “Spanking Virgin”. More recently, I was delighted when I came across the young British artist Ian Groom, whose Jesus logo (sans the genitalia!) I use on the JesusNeverExisted home page.
MW: In the interview with Infidel Guy, you discussed the cross as a derivation of the ankh. Is that really the case–wasn’t it a Roman means of killing prisoners, i.e. crucifixion? Perhaps you are familiar with Soltes’ “Our Sacred Signs: How Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Art Draw from the Same Source.” What struck me about Soltes’ book, was the humor almost in the notion that virtually all religious symbols come from pagan symbols. Can you explain how religious iconography can be so fluid — i.e. being liberally borrowed and lent back and forth — and yet so divisive today between distinct religious groups? The recent controversy over the attempt to ban the swastika, which derives from a Hindu symbol for peace, seems to come to mind. What are your reactions to that controversy?
KH: Hell, religion is a competitive business, forever sequestrating ideas and scams from the competition. Christianity took everything it found useful from its precursors, imagery no less than dogma. I remember a few years back when there was a spate of weeping Hindu statues.
Shortly after, icons of the Blessed Virgin Mary began to shed tears!
Actually the original NT texts refer to a stake and a tree rather than a crucifix. Certainly the cross was not part of the original symbolism of the faith. The Coptic Church, so very important in the early years, clearly inherited the ancient Egyptian ankh which easily mutated into the chi-rho and then the cross. Remember, until the 8th century there was no man on the Christian cross; it was a lamb. In the earlier iconography Jesus strolls about as a beardless youth like Apollo, or wearing the philosopher’s toga. Different times, different fashions.
As for the swastika, well the Hindus certainly have a prior claim to the Nazis. You know, I even came across an artifact from Herod’s Temple that has a carved “swastika”!
MW: I understand that you view religion as a bankrupt institution, and that you identify as an atheist. What connotations does that position carry for you vis. religious art? Do you find yourself disgusted by religious art (and hoping a la Plato to banish the artists for lying), or can you admire the art in it while ignoring the religious content? Do you have favorite pieces of religious art? How do you respond to the fact that much of the canonized (let’s call it “high”) art today was funded by the church? How do you respond to all of the vandalism and destruction of religious artifacts carried out throughout history by the iconoclasts speaking in the name of religion and the second commandment?
KH: I can admire religious art even with its religious content! For me they speak for the age of their execution, they are historical documents. Even a lie says a truth about the liar. I don’t find much religious art joyful or aesthetically pleasing but it certainly doesn’t cause me discomfort. I wouldn’t have it cluttering up my space but I abhor the destruction of religious artifacts, like the Bamiyan Buddha by the Taliban, or even the monoliths of the Soviet era. Censorship and vandalism is pernicious. The greatest collection of art in the world – the religious architecture of the pagans – was destroyed by the Christians. They did it because they feared that the temples and shrines really were the haunt of the demon. Christian art has no spooks for me. It’s propaganda in paint and wholly of this world.
MW: Do you recognize some notion of the sacred which can exist in art without being religious?
KH: To be honest, I have no particular sympathy with the notion of the “sacred”, in art or any other context. I guess it’s the word. For me “sacred” rings alarm bells – suggesting an irrational reverence for candles, incense and men in fancy dress. I find it odd that atheists like Sam Harris want to promote a secular “spirituality”, as if the world were not enough, there has to be some “transcendence”. Are memories sacred? Is the US flag sacred? Are the dead sacred? I think the artist must always provoke and challenge or we create new irrational paradigms.
MW: How do you respond to the current campaign from institutions like the Claims Conference to seek the restitution of Holocaust era artwork to its heirs? Do you think that sympathy for the Jewish tragedy and fear of being tagged anti-Semitic is responsible for the campaign’s success, or is it simply a matter of justice?
KH: Well when I heard the recent news stories I thought, “Now would I want to claim something from my grandfathers?” To be honest my answer was “No, I never knew either of my grandfathers. Sure it would be like winning a lottery. But in no way could I feel I had a right to claim property because of the accident of birth. If the property in question was art in a public gallery then I would think it was in the right place. It’s over 60 years since the end of WWII. I think sympathy for dead ancestors on behalf of living descendants with an eye on a pot of gold is going way too far. Why not reclaim the property and pass it on to people who really are suffering? That would be more just.
MW: I assume you are familiar with the recent controversy with the chocolate Jesus (if not, I’ve linked a few of the stories on my blog which you can check). How do you respond to that? Would you rather see the piece shown (even though it depicts a character, Jesus, whom you think never existed), or would you rather see the deceptive image censored (and thus give the religious institutions what they desire)? How did you find yourself responding to the Danish cartoon controversy? To the Madonna with elephant dung in the Sensations show?
KH: I think it must be clear by now that I do not condone censorship of art. Let art, like ideas, compete for attention. The chocolate Jesus I love! Let’s have a marshmallow Jesus, a cheesecake Jesus, a chicken McNugget Jesus! For centuries the Catholics have eaten Jesus as a dry biscuit. Isn’t it time he migrated from savory to sweet?
When the Danish cartoons were published I republished the most “offensive” one on my website. It’s a necessary defense of free speech. The dung Madonna I found mildly amusing.
Look, religious belief is a set of ideas, that’s all. They have no special claims to immunity from criticism. Silly ideas need to be ridiculed. If we become gutless in the defense of civilization we will soon have no civilization to defend.
MW: How important to you is the cultural significance in art and artifacts of a religious people? That is to say, would you recognize a body of work that is endemic to the Palestinian cause and people, without the shackles of Islam, or to the Israeli people without the Jewish implications?
KH: Art is one form of expression precious to all people. A culture is far more valuable than its religious element, no matter how dominant that element is. The Byzantine Empire was a Christian totalitarianism but its art still speaks to us about the people of that place and time. Lamentably, but inescapably, most peoples are still sunk in ignorance and religion. Therefore there will remain the veneer of religion on culture for some considerable time yet.
In today’s world one can see how for some peoples religion is a reactionary bulwark against assimilation into a heartless global consumerism. But there’s nothing new in that. The religion of the Aztecs, the ghost dance of the American Indians, the cargo cults of Polynesia, all were destroyed by stronger conquerors and that was a cultural loss for the world. We should still be able to appreciate the cultural legacy of a people despite the distorting lens of religion – theirs or “ours”.