Maybe it’s because I was on a predominantly Catholic island, but even on vacation thousands of miles away, breaking news about the chocolate Jesus planned for display in a midtown New York hotel managed to trickle down to me. Apparently protesters succeeded in having its exhibition blocked. Julian Sanchez is surprised that no one protesting seems to have put very much thought into what that artist was trying to accomplish with the piece, but it seems religious agitators are generally on the prowl for pretenses to be offended and perhaps are ultimately seeking to obviate the need for a legitimate reason to be offended altogether—for many religious activists, perpetual outrage is their brand. This seems to be part of that campaign.
The incident prompted me to wonder whether religious demagogues are wasting their time flexing their muscles over something so patently insignificant, especially these sorts of “desecrations” of icons tend to reinforce their fading power rather than dissipate it; such art attempts to trade on the icon’s residual power. At the In These Times blog, Brian Zick points out how chronically offended demagogues and purposely offensive artists work together like moss and lichen, and that artists inevitably benefit from this kind of attention, while the outraged inevitably seem foolish. But demagogues benefit as well, as they do whenever media gives them a megaphone. In these inane disputes are opportunities to stage those rituals of ultimately futile defiance that religions, when marginalized by secular society, fuel themselves on.
We are far beyond the point where the circulation of images can be controlled; churches maintain power not by mandating prohibitions and successfully exercising censorship, at least not in the West. Instead their power now lies in staging pseudoevents, supplying experiential goods—say, the pleasure felt when a petty triumph such as sending Chocolate Jesus to limbo is secured. Perhaps the manufactured controversy (a faint echo of the Danish cartoon brouhaha of 2006 and reminiscent of the now annually renewed “war against Christmas) is merely part of the pas de deux for replenishing symbolic power—religious images becomes truly trivial when nobody shows up as expected to complain about alleged misuses, when a sanctimonious rally can’t be gathered as a kind of parallel form of worship.
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