Tuesday, October 11, 2005


In a recent Guardian column, Stuart Jeffries regretted that in the wake of the summer London bombings, Tate Britain had decided against showing artist John Latham's challenging work, God is Great #2, produced in 1991. The work incorporates copies of the Qur'an, the Bible and the Talmud, cut and pierced by glass (In the wake of 7/7, London does not need art to tiptoe around the sensibilities of those who could possibly be affronted, 26 September 2005). Now Tate Britain director Stephen Deuchar has responded in print, declaring that the decision was taken on security grounds alone, and does not constitute censorship. However, this is a very fine line indeed. For the risk arose directly from a belief that religiously offended vandals might attempt to deface or attack the work. Inter alia, Deuchar says: "the purpose of the work lay not in politics but in its commentary on the evolution of religious thought - represented by the books - from an original state of nothingness, represented by a large sheet of plate glass."

While one has every sympathy for both the director and the gallery in this situation, it is surely a little disingenuous not to admit that its decision is, at least, an act of self-censorship -- and, moreover, one that risks further feeding the climate of over-sensitivity we now seem to be inhabiting. Mainstream faith community leaders should be concerned about these developments. An open society is one in which people are able to explain, proclaim and live out their differing convictions. This entails being able to cope maturely with the fact that others will critique and even deride them. Healthy religion is significantly defined by its ability to tap those sources of self-awareness, pluralism and self-criticism within its own traditions which make this maturity both possible and necessary. This is not the imposition of some alien 'secular' or 'liberal' agenda (to face the accusation made by religious absolutists), but an inherent part of any rational faith's capacity for critical self-renewal. Without it there will be hell to pay for all of us.

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