Thursday, 3 June 2010

In a bad world, being an angel is revolutionary (more comments on Vilks)

The Vilks controversy still rages in far-away Sweden (I’ve already explained my stance on this issue here). A very good and kind friend of mine – E. – is trying to keep me updated. Here’s a reply I wrote to her a few days ago (translated with a few revisions)

Hi E.,
  Good to hear you’re out moving around among people and listening to a lot of views. I’m rather isolated here, and maybe that’s why I always think I understand everything so well :)
  No, I’m really not the right person to disentangle your thoughts with.
  But there is one thing I can still say I truly believe, and that’s that one can’t judge everything according to how it relates to the freedom of expression. Of course there’s much else one needs to take into consideration.
  That seems to be what Dan Jönsson – in the article you sent me – also wants to point out, even though it’s a bit comical that he believes that the Vilks’ caricature "deserves a place in art history" just for having demonstrated the untenability of adopting an “institutional” attitude and behaving as if nothing outside the art world had the slightest importance. What a hyperbole! - for surely its self-evident that there’s a world outside art, a world where people can be hurt and where insults are not only art but precisely and above all insults.
  What (might) be interesting is why in heaven’s name people have suddenly started to judge everything according to the aspect of freedom of expression. You tell me about the crucifix in urine which was exhibited somewhere and made so many Christians upset, and you wonder why that felt more acceptable or ”better” than the Muhammad caricatures. I don’t know the circumstances, but I think Christians have a right to be angry about that, just as Muslims have a right to be angry now. As I wrote earlier, “I’m ready to die for your right to be angry”. What I want is not a law that gags artists and others, but that artists (and others of course) reflect a little on what they're doing and stop acting indignant and surprised when people are provoked by art that is meant to provoke them.
  Another interesting question is why artists have suddenly started to think that it’s artistically advanced and radical to challenge what they think is political correctness. This must be something new, mustn’t it? Picasso or Duchamp didn't scandalize their audiences by ridiculing other cultures. But today people seem to think that political correctness is an artistic convention which they need to reject in order to prove how artistically radical they are. Why has it become like that?
  Now I’m not the right person to judge if that is right or wrong. Maybe it’s right. Maybe it is “good” art. But even if it’s right it means that art has ended up in a big dilemma, since such art almost by its very definition will have to trample on minorities and other weak groups in society. Muslims today, disabled tomorrow? Maybe it's time to resurrect the humour of bodily defects?
  Dear E., you who are so good at softening people’s hearts, on helping that “which is not inferno” (Calvino). That is just what I want art to do! I want art to discover a way to be radical and transgressive in a way that liberates and makes people feel exhilarated and fantastic.
  Dada did it, punk did it – but throwing out insults against whole peoples sure doesn't.
  You won’t get any argument from me, because what I’m going to tell you is impossible to use in a debate: I want people – including artists – to be angels!
Having decided to publish this, maybe I should also explain the last sentence. Angels, I think, are people who don't insist on their right. But maybe what I want to say is impossible to explain. Let me just state that I don’t like the motives of those who speak so self-righteously about the freedom of expression nowadays and that I’m surprised and shocked at how little understanding there seems to be for those who feel offended by the caricatures. As Kajsa Ekis Ekman puts it, to say the words “freedom of expression” in Sweden today has become tantamount to saying “Shut up”, a way of depriving the offended of the right to reply.

To be right is not all that matters. If you believe that, you’ve got to have a heart of stone.

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