Impious Ideas

(This article was composed of original and legally republishable material from The Global Cacluttan and Nameless Digest)

As the massacre at Charlie Hebdo reminds us, art and satire have long been targets of violent suppression. Here are nine famous books, films and plays that sparked a virulent backlash.

The attack against cartoonists of the satirical French paper Charlie Hedbo is the latest bloody reminder of the consequences that can come from practicing our most sacred and powerful form of expression. Artistic types have been testing the lines of free expression since time immemorial, and this exercise has long tested nerves and inspired brutal backlashes or suppression.

Nazis banished all “degenerate” art, comic books sparked protests throughout the post-WWII years, and censorship of provocative films continues. Even now, we struggle with how conflicts involving religion and politics come to a head in art, and many societies dole out punishment to those who would dare test the boundaries. Sometimes, the repercussions reach beyond the creators and affect hundreds or thousands. Here are a few examples of the violence that controversial art has inspired.

The first martyr of free speech may well have been Socrates

The Trial of Socrates
Called ‘the wisest and most just of all men,’ by his student, Plato, many do not know that Socrates, mentor to the author of The Republic, pillar of philosophy, and father of argument was, put to death by the people of Athens. In 399 B.C. Socrates was accused of “impiety” and of “neglect of the Gods whom the city worships and the practise of religious novelties” and of the “corruption of the young”.

Why, in a society enjoying more freedom and democracy than any the world had ever seen, would a seventy-year-old philosopher be put to death for what he was teaching, and send him to his death just a few years before he would have died naturally? This fact has puzzled historians and academics for the ages. But, it seems society needs to punish whose, who challenge prevailing convictions.

Seen, initially as a harmless eccentric as portrayed in a play called ‘Clouds’ by Aristophanes produced in 423 B.C.E. Socrates is presented as an eccentric and comic headmaster of a “thinkery” known for “stalking the streets” of Athens barefoot, “rolling his eyes” at remarks he found unintelligent, and “gazing up” at the clouds. Socrates himself, apparently, took no offense at his portrayal in Clouds. Plutarch, in his Moralia, quoted Socrates as saying, “When they break a jest upon me in the theatre, I feel as if I were at a big party of good friends.” Plato, in his Symposium, describes Socrates and Aristophanes engaged in friendly conversation.

In another play around the same time, comic poet Eupolis has one of his characters say: “Yes, and I loathe that poverty-stricken windbag Socrates, who contemplates everything in the world but does not know where his next meal is coming from.” ‘Birds’, a play of Aristophanes written six years after his Clouds, contains a revealing reference: he labels a gang of pro-Sparta aristocratic youths as “Socratified.” Sparta–the model of a closed society–and Athens were enemies: the remark suggests Socrates’ teachings were seen to be subversive, and that more so than disrespect to the Gods lay the seeds of his undoing.

Any number of words and actions of Socrates may have contributed to his impiety charge. Preoccupied with his moral instruction, he probably failed to attend important religious festivals. He may have stirred additional resentment by offering arguments against the collective, ritualistic view of religion shared by most Athenians or by contending that gods could not, as Athenians believed, behave immorally or whimsically. Xenophon indicates that the impiety charge stemmed primarily from the contention of Socrates that he received divine communications (a “voice” or a “sign”) directing him to avoid politics and concentrate on his philosophic mission. A vague charge such as impiety invited jurors to project their many and varied grievances against Socrates.

At the time, Athenian plays portrayed Zeus in comic light, henpecked by Juno, urinating through clouds. Blasphemy as such was not strictly enforced. However, ancestors were held in the highest of esteem, and disrespect of the dead was not tolerated. Socrates was supremely irreverent of dead statesmen, and dismissive of democracy in general. He believed in the rule of the wise, and the sanctity of the living.

The prime accuser, Meletus, a poet whose charge resulted in the trial (In Athens, criminal proceedings could be initiated by any citizen) was derisive of Socrates, ironically, for the latter’s belief that the moon was rock and sun was fire.

The accusations were initially laughed off but after Socrates responded to the summons of Meletus in front of witnesses, King Archon, the magistrate found the accusations to have merit, and proceedings were instituted. He was convicted in a relatively close vote. Even then, Socrates was irreverent to the jurors in proposing a sentence that would reward him. As the situation became serious, he offered to pay a fine, consisting of a sizable portion of his meagre savings. Plato, his student, proposed a higher and more punitive fine – but by now the jury – some 500 Athenians, mainly uneducated farmers, the kind of illiterate mob that Socrates said made democracy an unreliable instrument of governance, enthusiastically voted to put him to death. And, he was forced to drink a lethal extract of Hemclock, which resulted in a far from painless death, paralyzing his central nervous system as he died slowly of thirst.

Though there have been many such martyrs over the ages, here is a brief list of controversial works and the artists, who created them, who have been vilified if not punished physically:

The Innocence of Muslims
No film trailer has had such catastrophic international repercussions as “The Innocence of Muslims,” an amateur and offensive depiction of the prophet Muhammed as a murderer. When a clip of it was aired on Egyptian television in 2012, protests erupted across the country. The unrest soon made its fiery way across the world’s Muslim-majority nations, from Iran to Nigeria to Malaysia. Tens of thousands of protesters rushed to city squares and U.S. embassies, and hundreds were killed. In Yemen, 60 vehicles at the American compound were burned. In Pakistan, the government announced a national holiday specifically to rail against the film. And in what at first appeared to be related incident, but would later prove to have been pre-planned, the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, was stormed and four Americans were killed, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

The mysterious man behind “The Innocence of Muslims” has since been jailed on separate charges and in February, a federal court ruled that Google had to remove the video from YouTube after a drawn-out lawsuit by one of the actresses.
Behzti by Gurpreet Kaur Ghatti

In 2004, a play titled Behzti (Dishonor) made its debut at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in England to massive protests by the Sikh community. Their qualms were with a rape and murder scene that was set inside a Sikh temple, and nearly 400 turned up to storm the theater. None of the audience members were hurt, but five police officers were injured and the entire theater was evacuated. “Religion and art have collided for centuries, and will carry on doing battle long after my play and I are forgotten,” playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti wrote in The Guardian after the play was canceled and she was forced to go into hiding.
Jyllands-Posten’s Cartoons

It’s been 10 years since the world first witnessed the fervor created by offensive cartoons with Islamic themes. In 2005, a Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten published a sketch of the prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. The cartoon was republished and broadcast across the Middle East, and hundreds of people were killed in protests. From Syria to Nigeria to Indonesia, Danish embassies were attacked, bombed, and burned, and later so were Italian and Norwegian missions. The anger didn’t fizzle out. In 2006, a “day of rage” was announced, and scores more were killed. In the years to come, violence has continuously been ignited by the drawings.
Despite bounties on their heads, the paper’s editor and artist haven’t been injured. Cartoonist Kurt Westergaard was placed under 24-hour protection, and in 2010narrowly survived an attack by an axe-wielding man in his home. Flemming Rose, the newspaper’s culture editor, was also targeted for assassination but the plot was foiled.

The Satanic Verses
Author Salman Rushdie says his life has never returned to normal after penningThe Satanic Verses more than 25 years ago. In the book, Rushdie mocks the Quran and the prophet Muhammad. The response was swift: violent demonstrations exploded across the world, the book was banned, and Iran’s then-supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, puts a $5 million fatwa on Rushdie’s head. Rushdie has emerged unscathed, and published many more books, but not all who were involved were so lucky. The translator of the Japanese version of “The Satanic Verses” was killed, and others involved were threatened. In 1998, 10 years after the book was published, Iran lifted the death sentence placed on Rushdie, and he has cautiously emerged from hiding.

The Rite of Spring
A crowded theater in Paris was eager to hear the latest from Russian composer Igor Stravinsky in 1913, but the ballet that played out on stage wasn’t what they had in mind. ”The Rite of Spring” depicted a savage, spasmodic style of dancing that was so displeasing to viewers they began throwing vegetables at the dancers and soon were fist-fighting among themselves. Before the police could arrive, there was a full-blown riot in the audience. After a controversial six-show run, the ballet closed and wasn’t appreciated until years later. Today, it’s lauded as a masterpiece.

The Birth of a Nation
It may have been called an epic and groundbreaking piece of cinematography, but D.W. Griffith’s Civil War film was also widely condemned upon its 1915 release. Though white audiences flocked to the theaters, the NAACP fought against “Birth of a Nation’s” blatant racism. Riots erupted outside theaters that showed it, and the NAACP filed injunctions against the theater owners, arguing the film was a threat to public safety. Klan membership got a boost with the movie by using it as a recruitment tool, and it’s thought that lynchings were inspired in part by the film.

Fire by Deepa Mehta
Though she was forced to accept a constant security detail after releasing a film about a lesbian relationship in Delhi, director Deepa Mehta was undeterred from making two follow-up films in the trilogy. In 1998, “Fire” was pulled from theaters in India after Shiv Sena, an extremist Hindu group, launched demonstrations against the depiction of a lesbian couple choosing to be together. At least 15 theaters across the country were stormed, and protests were held outside the homes of the leading actors.

Two years later, Mehta began filming a second film, “Water,” also in India, but was forced to relocate the shoot after mobs destroyed her set and threatened her. Many theaters were too afraid to screen the movie and when DVDs started appearing on the market they were burned and shopkeepers were intimidated into not selling copies.

Submission by Theo Van Gogh
In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh directed a short film called “Submission” that depicted an abused and almost naked women painted with Quranic verses. He intended it to be a call for women’s rights in Muslim communities. By the end of the year, Van Gogh, the great-great-nephew of the famous painter, had been shot and stabbed to death by a Dutch Moroccan assailant while on his way to his office in Amsterdam. After the attack, the film’s writer, a former Muslim, was forced into hiding. In response to the backlash, mosques in Holland were torched, and in return, so were churches. A year later, after the film was shunned by European television channels and theaters, the Italian state broadcasters made the bold decision to air it, despite threats.

Piss Christ
A photograph of a crucifix dunked in urine is probably the most infamous and continuously protested piece of artwork of our time. Since artist Andres Serrano first displayed it in 1987, “Piss Christ” has incited riots and prompted death threats every time it makes its way into an exhibit. On Palm Sunday in 2011, some 1,000 Catholic protesters in France stormed the town where it was displayed and a small group made it into the gallery and destroyed the piece with a hammer. The controversial photo continues to be displayed, despite many more incidents, including a vandalizing in Australia and a destruction of a show by neo-Nazis in Sweden. On Wednesday, after the attack on Charlie Hedbo, the Associated Pressremoved images of Piss Christ from its database, calling it and other deleted photos “deliberately provocative.”

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