Saturday 22 November 2008

Another 'Culture War'?

Last Thursday, I participated in a panel discussion on the reactions to the first solo exhibition by budding artist Sarah Maple. Of British-Kenyan (Muslim) extraction, she is the recipient of the 2007 4 Sensations Prize awarded by London's Saatchi Gallery and Channel 4. Both the exhibition, entitled This Artist Blows, and the panel discussion were hosted by SaLon Gallery, run by Samir Ceric, a London-based art dealer of Bosnian Muslim origin. The debate was moderated by art critic and journalist Tom Flynn, who has covered the 'Sarah Maple affair' on his own blog.

Unfortunately, but also predictably, cynical media manipulation turned the exhibition into yet another incident in a series of controversies, which can be traced back to Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Since then, it seems that any artistic and cultural issue involving Muslims becomes an inevitable hostage of the undeniably increased political antagonism between 'the Muslim world' and 'the West'.

This time it all started on 10 October, with an article in The Telegraph, which insinuated that the vice-president of The Muslim Association of Britain had demanded the removal of the offending pieces. It has since turned out that no such demand was made. However, by then the issue had already snowballed into a full-blown scandal. Other self-proclaimed spokespersons of the Muslim community, as well as individuals, added their voices to an increasingly acrimonious media hype. The issue received even coverage in the BBC's Arabic language programme. Eventually, SaLon Gallery was subjected to an act of vandalism in which the windowpane was smashed, while both the artist and gallery staff received a substantial volume of hate mail.

Some of Sarah Maple's pieces can certainly be considered controversial, designed to provoke a reaction, but not -- as the artist repeatedly assured herself -- intended to mock or insult. Moreover, many of her paintings and photo collages also evince a sense of humour -- a quality sorely missing from any discussion on issues involving Islam, but which is actually eminently suited to take the edge of things -- a point recognized by several of the panelists, including the writer of this blog.

To put the issue into perspective, the moderator also noted that intolerance towards controversial artistic expression is not a Muslim monopoly, reminding the audience of the cancellation of last year's exhibition of the artwork 'My Sweet Lord' at New York gallery the Lab. In that case, Catholic civic rights organization The Catholic League was successful in having the 'chocolate Jesus' by Italian-Canadian artist Cosimo Cavallaro taken down. On the other hand, as panelist and media commentator Peter Whittle rightly observed, nobody was physically hurt, while in a number of occasions in which Muslims took offense people were killed.

There seemed to be also a general agreement among the participants regarding art's potential for building bridges between divergent cultures, because it can -- as Tom Flynn put it -- 'fly under the radar' of political disagreements or conflicts, and appeal to a shared humanity. However, at the same time, part of the way in which the debate unfolded appeared to affirm once again the very issue under discussion: namely how media-savvy interlocutors succeed time and again in turning such events into a tool serving their own agendas.

Peter Whittle, who with his New Culture Forum has jumped on the bandwagon of The Right, joining its 'Culture Wars' against the Liberal Left, was challenged by former BBC producer Najma Kazi. Although both clearly agreed that freedom of expression was an inalienable democratic right that must be upheld without compromise, they staged a polemical display which steered away from a substantive discussion on the role of art in a multicultural world. Subsequently, Peter Whittle's rendition of the debate on his own website, presents him as the only one in the forum who realized the gravity of the issues at stake. Thus he succeeded in exploiting the panel for waging another battle in the new Kulturkampf, which is turning Samuel Huntington's 'Clash of Civilizations' thesis into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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