A student artwork recently appeared in the Cultural Centre of Novi Sad, depicting Jesus in an inappropriate and offensive way, according to the opinion of religious communities to which over 90 per cent of Novi Sad’s citizens belong to.
The exhibition was prepared and set up by the professors of the Academy of Arts without any consultation with the Cultural Centre, and taken down the following day in the same manner. That would, certainly, be quite appropriate had the exhibition been made on their premises. But, since they came to our institution, I had just that one day to take the responsibility, as the editor-in-chief, for the content which turned up against the procedure, on the bases of privileged cooperation and trust. I consulted professors, authors, artists, editors, representatives of religious communities and others whom I managed to reach, and after taking everything into account, I decided not to accept the questionable piece.
This decision has caused various and numerous reactions. Part of the public has initiated vigorous protests, mainly the same part which attacked the Cultural Centre a year ago, claiming that the new logo in Cyrillic letters was a swastika. On the other hand, five religious communities, united in diversity in a manner typical to Novi Sad, have supported the decision.
However, as opposed to the gross slander about the swastika, this time it is not a black and white conflict where one side would be right and the other wrong. Indeed, it is a tragic conflict between two important priorities of our editorial policy: respect of all the citizens and opening our doors to young artists. Moreover, it is a conflict between two fundamental principles reaching far beyond our institution: artistic and religious freedoms.
The dilemma is not if an artist has the right to offend. The dilemma is: if an artist has the right to impose the offense on others and if tax payers have to pay for it. The dilemma is what offense is and what art is, and who will be the judge of it.
Our civilisation has not yet reached a conclusive answer to such questions, with the exception of various Bolsheviks and Talibans to whom jumping into conclusions and eliminating those who do not agree is quite easy. On the contrary, democratic societies are committed to reaching a consensus. In Serbia, the country whose first constitution stipulates that a slave gains his freedom ‘once he steps on Serbian territory,’ a debate about freedoms carries a special responsibility.
In America, a freedom-loving nation as well, where the First Amendment is such a sanctity that even the Satanist Church and Nazi party are legally registered, the mayor of the City of New York Rudolph Giuliani once threatened the Brooklyn Museum with withdrawing municipal finances, even their license to use the public ground and premises because of exhibiting a provocative image of Virgin Mary, which he labelled a ‘disgusting attack on religion’. A long court process ended up in a settlement, and the exhibition was held in New York, but was cancelled in Australia. In the European Union, committed to human and minority rights, the very European Parliament, after carefully considering the matter, refused to exhibit a painting of naked Jesus, and subsequently the entire show Ecce Homo by authoress Elisabeth Ohlson.
These were considered neither acts of censorship nor repression, but a difficult yet legitimate quest for measure. We are bound to seek the right measure by the liberal definition of freedom, which prescribes that we are free to do everything as long as we do not prevent others from exercising the same freedoms. The European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Serbia is a signatory to, establishes that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression ‘, but then it adds: ‘The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society for the protection of the reputation or rights of others’.
Of course, it is possible for an editor to be wrong in his estimation of a right measure, but without any measure, we will be wrong certainly. Such is the case of the protest initiators who claim that ‘the artistic freedom must not be limited in any way,’ and that ‘young people should not be limited in anything’. This reduces the complex definition of freedom to a totalitarian battle cry, for those with shallowest thinking and shortest nerves.
The first limit which is thus removed is the one between culture and non-culture. Protest ‘performances’ against the Cultural Centre immediately turned into disturbances, which included urinating on and rubbing naked bottoms against an institution of culture in the name of culture. Just like promoting totalitarianism in the name of freedom, which ignores the rights of others, refuses dialogue and prosecutes those think differently.
Without the measure, every ‘no’ is censorship, each cross is a swastika, each patriotism is fascism. The self-proclaimed judges can declare any offense to be art and defend it from ‘repression’ with all means. Racist graffiti can thus become ‘murals’, preventing the offended communities from removing them, even from their own walls, but instead making them obligated to pay for them.
It is not important weather we advocate artistic or religious freedoms without measure – both will lead to extremism. Our society is particularly vulnerable because, due to the crisis of values, it finds it difficult to distinguish normal from not normal, which provides ground to extremists of all sorts for turning these two upside-down, even in matters so common as writing in Cyrillic script. As someone wittily said, we would disagree even about an introduction of the plague. The only remedy is a constructive dialogue, where attitudes would have to be confronted and explained.
For example, why were there no protests initiated against similar decisions of the European Parliament and the City of New York? Or, if that is too far-reached, against the Serbian private gallery ‘Ozon’, which has cancelled a controversial exhibition on sacral topics earlier this year? Because these protests are primarily political and the fire from all the weapons is focused on a target which is seen as the greatest threat.
In the Cultural Centre of Novi Sad new people are proving that they can, and old people are losing their privileges. That is what must not be allowed.
Politika, November 14, 2013.
Politika changed the title to “Why I decided not to accept the questionable artwork”