Where's the brave art world that stood up to John Ashcroft?

Art in the West has a long tradition of never shying away from controversy, and as New York is supposed to be on the cutting edge, the last place you'd expect to see censorship would be in New York's art museums, right?

Wrong. Controversial art may be one thing, but if the controversy involves Islam, the trendy elitists behave in a manner that rivals uptight Victorians who feared they might offend the "vicar's daughter."

In the Victorians' defense, it should be pointed out that they didn't literally live in fear of the vicar's daughter (any more than John Ashcroft "feared" those who might have been offended by breasts on Justice Department statues); they were in their own way being "gentlemen." (Ashcroft's goal may also have been to avoid providing political adversaries with photo opportunities.) Today's censors are not behaving as "gentlemen," but as simple cowards.

Which is a roundabout way of expressing my disgust on reading about censorship at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

According to the New York Post, they have a bad case of "jihad jitters." "The Metropolitan Museum of Art," the Post reported yesterday, "quietly pulled images of the Prophet Mohammed from its Islamic collection and may not include them in a renovated exhibition area slated to open in 2011." Why? "The museum said the controversial images -- objected to by conservative Muslims who say their religion forbids images of their holy founder -- were 'under review.'"
Roger Kimball notes the different standard that is applied to things that might offend prudes, or atheists:
"Controversial images"? You know what, I'll bet there are some prudish types who object to the exhibition of naked women. What is the met going to do about that? Maybe atheists object to all those depictions of Jesus Christ and his mother. How is the Met going to deal with those "controversial images"?

There's more. "Just recently," the Post reported, the Met "decided its highly anticipated 'Islamic Galleries' will be given an awkward new name ahead of the 2011 opening. Visitors will stroll around rooms dedicated to art from "Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia."

Someone please call the office of Circumlocution! The Post quoted Kishwar Rizvi, an historian of Islamic Art at Yale, who interjected a bit of common sense into the discussion. "Museums shouldn't shy away from showing [images of Muhammed] in a historical context," she said, noting that it was "a shame" the Met dropped "Islamic Art" for a "cumbersome and problematic" rubric.

What is being forgotten is that these images were produced by Muslims themselves. There has never been universal agreement in Islam that all representations of Muhammad are blasphemous. So why are American museums censoring themselves in accordance with the most restrictive interpretation? It's obvious why. They are afraid. The "fearless" art world that stands up to John Ashcroft wets their collective panties over the mutterings of Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Kimball predicts that we will be "seeing more and more of these disgusting rituals of surrender." In May of 2008, I noticed that the Philadelphia Art Museum singled out one of Frida Kahlo's for special mounting under a protective locked case because it included an image of Muhammad. Here it is:


(Top row, left to right: Akhenaten, Jehovah, Jesus Christ, Zoroaster; Bottom row, left to right: Alexander the Great, Caesar, Mohammed, Luther, Napoleon, and Hitler).

At the time I praised the Philadelphia Art Museum for their courage in displaying the painting at all:

Of all the subjects in the painting, which one would so worry the curator that he felt the need to put it behind a protective encasement?

I don't think that takes much imagination. All of these subjects have been painted in many times and places by many artists, but the only one I can think of who would generate such paranoia on the part of a museum curator is Muhammad. Frankly, I don't blame the curator. Nuts do vandalize paintings from time to time, but the kind of people who would want to erase the image of Muhammad are not your garden variety schizophrenics. They're more likely to be serious and determined people who believe they are on the side of God.

Perhaps it isn't accurate to be lumping them in with nuts. Perhaps it is. Some might consider it a form of denial to dismiss violently determined religious people as "crazy." (Certainly the violent and determined people themselves wouldn't want to be called crazy.)

But whatever they are, the problem is not one that's going away. No avant-garde artist today would dare include an image of Muhammad in any painting. No museum would show it, and few galleries would display it. I realize that many, many artists, in both the Western as well as Eastern traditions (including my favorite, Salvador Dali) have portrayed Muhammad, and I know that a bas relief sculpture of him is still on the Supreme Court building (although Muslim activists want it sandblasted off). But would any museum dare to do an exhibition of Muhammad images in the history of art? Would any gallery display a Muhammad collection? I think not, and I don't think calling them "cowards" ends the inquiry.

For starters, they wouldn't be able to get insurance for the event. Police departments would warn them of violence, and would suggest the events not be held. Various bureaucracies would chime in, and demands would be issued by activist organizations.

In this context, exhibiting the Kahlo painting behind plexiglas has to be seen as an act of courage.

So shame on the Met. But in light of their cowardice, I feel like asking a sarcastic question.

Can sandblasting the image of Muhammad from the Supreme Court building be far behind?

UPDATE: My thanks to Glenn Reynolds for linking this post, and adding his thoughts. A warm welcome to all.

Comments invited -- agree or disagree.

posted by Eric on 01.12.10 at 12:29 PM


I may be thinking of another NY art museum, but where was this review process and sensitivity for the Virgin Mary portrait made with manure.

mrm27   ·  January 12, 2010 5:58 PM

Frida Kahlo's "Mohammed" is Frida Kahlo.

Art in the West has a long tradition of never shying away from controversy

It has a reputation for braving controversy, about as accurate as "Coke is it." The world of official Art, as represented by the Met, is a bauble factory for the aristocracy, and it acts like one, shifting trade at princely whim.

They're not afraid. They're who they are: not you, not us. And they know that all their former supposed controversy-courting was bullshit self-flattery, to be lightly dropped. Holding them to it only signals you're not one of them.

guy on internet   ·  January 12, 2010 6:58 PM

The artists, etc may be afraid, but I believe the self-censoring is a form of compensating for the perceived cultural immaturity of muslims by the left. They believe that muslims are incapable of appreciating or understanding the sophistication and nuance of today's art so they avoid exposing them to it. Think of it as the bigotry of low-expectations.

willis   ·  January 13, 2010 9:08 AM

Actually, Muslims object to naked women on display as well. I guess that will be next. And then any art that even hints of homosexuality, and then any art that depicts other prophets, such as Jesus, St. John, Buddha, etc.

It is a slippery slope here and, unfortunately, the Met is treating it like a water slide in Never Never Land.

Jack   ·  January 13, 2010 9:12 AM

No this is not the "bigotry of low expectations." Scheie has it correct; it's cowardice.

As a former professor of art history it never ceases to amaze me how the liberal left, in all walks of life, targets the low hanging fruit. Christianity is easy fodder for artists because Catholics and Protestants are not running aroung severing heads and issuing fatwas.

The same is true of other leftist causes; organizations like Human Rights Watch and the ACLU are quick to condemn perceived abuses in the West, but when someone like a Sadddam Hussein gasses an entire village of Kurds they are nowhere to be found.

T   ·  January 13, 2010 9:36 AM

What the he** is an image of Muhammad doing on the Supreme Court building anyway? As an artist, I say "Get the sandblaster!" and I mean it. The art world has too long been a home for limp-wristed wimps.

ExDem Artist   ·  January 13, 2010 9:37 AM

To paraphrase Mark Steyn, we are not predicting the surrender of the West at some apocalyptic moment 10 years hence, it is already happening, in small increments such as this.

Dan   ·  January 13, 2010 9:42 AM

Vicki Hearne slammed the Met for its bureaucratic compliance with received narratives in "Bandit"

Search inside for bland intellect here.

(The heart-warming crap in modern cover blurbs is crap. Hearne took no prisoners.)

rhhardin   ·  January 13, 2010 9:48 AM

As others have mentioned before, the curators are again setting up an incentive for other zealots to turn violent in order to get their way.

Behavior rewarded is behavior repeated.

Squid   ·  January 13, 2010 10:01 AM

Part of the bumbling idiocy of all this is the simple fact that images of Muhammad are not explicitly prohibited in the Koran, nor do all Muslims today share the belief that they are: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depictions_of_Muhammad. The precise analog is the Jewish tradition that, it is often claimed (by modern Orthodoxy), prohibits the artistic depiction of humans (and, some say, animals as well)—an opinion that stumbles up against the synagogue at Dura Europos and some Medieval Jewish cemetery art. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dura-Europos_synagogue

HMI   ·  January 13, 2010 10:05 AM

Is this censorship or concern for safety of person & property? NYC has nestimated the cost of security for the KSM trial to exceed $400-million over two years (pre-trial). The decision to try KSM in NYC federal court - several blocks from the WTC-hole-in-the-ground - was made by a Harvard allegedly-trained lawyer without consultation with NY officials. Query: shouldn't DOJ be required to post this sum as security from its own budget; shouldn't the US-AG be required to try the case personally to show the world the fairness of our justice system, and incidentally perhaps his incompetence?

Everyman   ·  January 13, 2010 10:34 AM

>>I may be thinking of another NY art museum, but where was this review process and sensitivity for the Virgin Mary portrait made with manure.
mrm27 · January 12, 2010 05:58 PM
That was Brooklyn's arthouse. Guliani tried to cut their funding and was shot down, so a buddy of mine, Scott LoBaido (http://scottlobaido.com/) went to the museum, set up a tripod and canvas, like he was about to commit "art", then reached into his bag and began throwing poop at the building.
Of course, he was immediately arrested.

TC@LeatherPenguin   ·  January 13, 2010 10:34 AM

Never forget that the art world is the sector that started this race to the bottom over a hundred years ago, as it abandoned skill based training and artistic tradition in its headlong retreat from the challenge of exploring the human condition in all its forms. It's left with slopping together decorative works guaranteed not to offend their governing bodies. Cozying up to Islam is just a natural next step. You can see this in the latest Turner prize winner, whose precise creation of a Rorshach-like blob in gold paint isn't any different in theory from the height of Islamic art of geometric tiling.

(Note to the first poster - it was the Brooklyn Museum, and the 'artist' was Chris Ofili, and the work is called 'Holy Vigin Mary', but better known as 'The Elephant Dung Madonna'. Personally, I don't care what material the artist used - there were acres of trees killed trying to rationalize this, while traditional materials themselves are often of very odd origin - but it was childish in the extreme, and says a lot that the art world considered it important).

HalifaxCB   ·  January 13, 2010 11:14 AM

Telling the truth about Islam & its Jihad and insulting both is one and the same, so only the ones fully armed with that truth, along with having the nerve to tell it like it is are going to do so. For those who haven't seen him yet, I present PIGMAN, an ex-Muslim counter jihad superhero who is the jihadist's worst nightmare and who exploits the enemy's pigotry by wearing pigskin leather.

Bosch Fawstin   ·  January 13, 2010 11:20 AM

"What the he** is an image of Muhammad doing on the Supreme Court building anyway? As an artist, I say "Get the sandblaster!" and I mean it. The art world has too long been a home for limp-wristed wimps."

He is in the frieze with other lawgivers.


Mikey NTH   ·  January 13, 2010 11:39 AM

"Is this censorship or concern for safety of person & property?"

Out of concern for persons and property, they are censoring themselves. They are afraid that they will be attacked by fanatical Islamists.

Anonymous   ·  January 13, 2010 11:42 AM

Jack is absolutely correct. This is just plain cowardice. There has never been any deference to the feelings of Christians over the various scatalogical images our brave, brave artists have produced of late. Or, any deference historically to the Jewish proscription of graven images.

Maybe there should be some consequences to this kind of cultural surrender. No - not violence. Perhaps the loss of any government support or subsidy since the organization does appear to be fostering an establishment of religion.

Threaten their rice bowl and it may stiffen their spine.


Mark   ·  January 13, 2010 12:25 PM

The reason the left in the academe and other
places dislike the military and the middle class is that they are both envious of these
groups. Soldiers are brave while academicians
hide in tenured positions. The middle class
works and earns its money through making things. Remember, that in the USSR intellectuals occupied places in the Gulag. people who didn't produce were considered 2nd
class citizens. Intellectuals are inherently

PTL   ·  January 13, 2010 12:25 PM

The Met supposedly holds art objects in trust for the nation at large. But the learned Trustees and Directors and Knowitalls have decided to pre-emptively surrender to a gang of thugs who dress up in 'religious' clothing. Very well, I'm a citizen, and the surrender is being done on my behalf, without a thought to my opinion.

Sorry, Trustees and Directors and Knowitalls, I have an opinion - two of them actually.

One: Those images of Mohammed were painted by Muslims, and must be included - not excluded - from any exhibition of Islamic art.

Two: Your resignations should be tendered immediately. You've proved yourselves worthless as intellectuals, and as representatives of American citizens.

Insufficiently Sensitive   ·  January 13, 2010 12:31 PM

I'm not surprised at the deafening silence from the MSM on this. What a bunch of pussies.

jim   ·  January 13, 2010 1:37 PM

Cowardice of the first order and foolish in the bargain. Submitting to pre-intimidation. Couple this with the denigration of Christianity that this crowd promotes one must ask, who will be there to help you when the real intimidation comes?

Mandingo Bacigalupi   ·  January 13, 2010 1:49 PM

Allahu akbar dhimmis.

Dave M.   ·  January 13, 2010 2:03 PM

The liberal media and entertainment world are are irrelevant and nothing but gutless cowards. Go ahead and attack Christianity and Judaism because you don't have the courage to stand up to Islamic tyranny.

strider22   ·  January 13, 2010 3:10 PM
The same is true of other leftist causes; organizations like Human Rights Watch and the ACLU are quick to condemn perceived abuses in the West, but when someone like a Sadddam Hussein gasses an entire village of Kurds they are nowhere to be found.
-- Jack

Oh, no, he dint.

He did NOT just say Human Rights Watch was "NOWHERE TO BE FOUND" re the Iraqi gassing of Kurds.

HRW was one of the groups most involved in bringing the genocide, WHICH WAS U.S.-SUPPORTED, to light.

"Joost Hiltermann, who was the principal researcher for the Human Rights Watch between 1992-1994, conducted a two-year study of the massacre, including a field investigation in northern Iraq. According to his analysis of thousands of captured Iraqi secret police documents and declassified U.S. government documents, as well as interviews with scores of Kurdish survivors, senior Iraqi defectors and retired U.S. intelligence officers, it is clear that Iraq carried out the attack on Halabja, and that the United States, fully aware of this, accused Iran, Iraq's enemy in a fierce war, of being partly responsible for the attack.[8]" Source: ^ a b c Halabja: America didn't seem to mind poison gas, IHT, January 17, 2003


Or you could, you know, just peruse the HRW.org archives.

If you're a PROFESSOR and all.


As for the ACLU, its mission has to do with the U.S. Constitution. It has never been, nor tried to be, a global human-rights organization.

Teh Stoopid. It Burns!

Lex   ·  January 13, 2010 3:22 PM

Islam is not the only religion that has prohibitions.

From Wikipedia under Aniconism in Judaism...

"Despite the semantic association with idols, Halakha ("Jewish law") as taught by the Shulkhan Arukh ("Code of Jewish Law") and still practiced and applied by Orthodox Judaism today, interprets the [second commandment] as prohibiting the creation of certain types of graven images of people, angels, or astronomical bodies, whether or not they are actually used as idols. The Shulkhan Arukh states: "It is forbidden to make complete solid or raised images of people or angels, or any images of heavenly bodies except for purposes of study...The prohibition is therefore seen as applying specifically to certain forms of sculpture and depictions of the human face."

Funny how nobody cares about this, since Orthodox Jews are not running around trying to kill everyone who has a different opinion.

AndyZ   ·  January 13, 2010 4:27 PM

"Frida Kahlo's "Mohammed" is Frida Kahlo."

It's Caesar (2nd from left) that's Kahlo. Track the URLs to the full painting.

It's interesting that Stalin and Hitler are at the extreme ends - Stalin on the Left, Hitler on the Right.

ZZMike   ·  January 13, 2010 7:29 PM

PS: It's time for a little protest performance art: get pictures of Mohammed - good ones, not the cartoon one - ans start plastering them all over the city. All of the cities.

ZZMike   ·  January 13, 2010 7:32 PM

Okay reading this and reading the comments on here really upset me.

First of all, what the hell is with all this talk about Liberals and the left and bringing them down in a negative way.

Second of all, how do you know this is a government thing. A museum is a business, maybe the business people who work there are worried to offend people and so they take it down.

The article says nothing but makes it sound like people who are worried to piss off islam and muslims don't want to show paintings of Muhammad.

What does that have to do with anything liberal and government.

Maybe its the conservatives and right wingers and christian right that opposed and didn't want to show that, maybe the museum is run by conservative minded people.

This is not a liberal issue, and for the record, muslim and islam are actually considered to be conservative and on the right wing part of the spectrum, look it it, they are not lefties.

Liberal minded people are against censorship more then conservatives.

After all it was Glenn Beck who spent his entire show claiming America is becoming communist and saying and showing a painting in new york city that shows communism and capitalism in one as proof and how he is against that.

After all it was Faux News, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity etc who freaked out when they were mentioned in Law and Order. It was the christian right who wanted to ban books like Harry Potter and more.

It really upsets me as an art major that people are trying to make this a liberal thing, how is this supporting and muslims and islam but bashing christians, how is this a liberal and leftist government issue.

From what I read, there is no proof that this is a liberal issue and that if anything its a conservative issue to not want to show certain artwork because its offensive after all conservatives have censored many things including art

csmonkey1989   ·  January 14, 2010 1:44 PM

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