Hateful taste in art

  • February 9, 2011
On Jan. 29, a small private art gallery in Toronto issued a press release publicizing an upcoming show that includes a portrait of Pope Benedict riddled with bullet-like holes and a representation of U.S. President Barak Obama crucified on a cross. As its own headline put it, “Pope shot, Obama crucified…”

The release commented casually about the sex abuse scandal in the Church, even though it’s not clear that the exhibit itself does. Most media outlets paid little attention to the release. Those that did handed the gallery publicity it could only dream about. After all, attacking the Church may generate a few angry letters and phone calls but it won’t harm your reputation in media and arts circles.

Many Christians, particularly Catholics, are fed up with how their faith gets lampooned and caricatured in the most negative of ways. It is reasonable to ask whether such hateful words and depictions qualify as a hate crime. The Criminal Code provides in section 319 that communicating statements, other than in private conversations, that willfully promote hatred against an identifiable group can, subject to various defenses, be the subject of a charge. Such content would have to be unusually strong and likely to incite violence against an identifiable group or person. 

In recent years, Canada’s hate crime laws have produced fewer than a dozen charges that made it to the courts, and many convictions were reversed on appeal. Most of them involved anti-Semitic and white supremacist content. Against that background, a Church-bashing promotion of offensive artwork in a private venue would assert its “right” to convey through “art” whatever disgusting message it wished.

We may actually agree that the bar be set high when a basic right such as free expression is challenged. In the case of the Toronto gallery, it’s unclear if its show is motivated by a malice intended to incite violence, so an investigation would be required to determine if a crime has been committed.

The other major venue for pursuing complaints of anti-religious discrimination is Section 13 of the federal Human Rights Code, and its counterparts in some of the provincial human rights tribunals. Collectively, these bodies have done some valuable educational work promoting equality, particularly for women, racial and ethnic minorities and the disabled. However, their record on free speech and religious freedom cases is lamentable, and all organizations that have studied it closely have concluded that any limitation on free speech should be administered by the courts, not by tribunals that can be arbitrary and often reflect political correctness. 

To be sure, there are free-speech advocates who believe any legal restrictions on speech are unwarranted and can produce a chilling effect on public discourse. In the case of the Toronto show, the Catholic Civil Rights League (and many of its members) unsuccessfully appealed to the gallery to reconsider its plans. If any public funding had gone to this project, our protest would have gone straight to government arts’ bodies

This will never be an easy issue. In a society with a consistent commitment to free speech and religious freedom, people will sometimes write or publicly say things that are nasty, bigoted, foolish or just plain ignorant. While probably true that some questionable art is unlikely to diminish the standing of Catholicism, it’s worth remembering that Toronto’s history of inter-religious relations had Catholics at a real disadvantage until well into the 20th century. It’s impossible to state firmly that such prejudices will never be stoked again. 

Hate crime charges are unlikely to foster better dialogue, but we should ask if leading members of the arts community are prepared to engage in greater efforts to shun or dismiss material that blatantly and deliberately offends. If not, they should expect increased funding for the arts will remain highly problematic from both public and private donors.

The Catholic Church is engaged in a serious examination of its recent scandals. The Church is not immune from mistakes and criticism and serious efforts have been undertaken to proactively address the issues. Can the arts community make the same claim about efforts to address hate within its own ranks?

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