Is everything allowed to art? Recent cases of attacks on religion in contemporary culture

Is everything allowed to art? Recent cases of attacks on religion in contemporary culture

For some time now, there has been a social polemic about whether art can use means that offend believers, their symbols and values, whether it give the artist unlimited freedom of expression and therefore, in the name of this freedom, they         has the right, for example, to ridicule the symbols of the followers of religion, misrepresenting them so maliciously, that when perceived by believers, they become blasphemy and offensive.

For centuries, art and culture in general were designed to delight, inspire, make people experience enrichment after leaving the theater, museum or concert, so his nature was developed[1]. The classic concept of culture, as demonstrated by Piotr Jaroszyński, concerned the creative development of the nature of a man who is an unfinished being: he shapes himself freely, not in opposition to nature, but in harmony with nature (thus ancient saying art imitates nature - not in the sense of slave mimicry, but because the function of art is to develop nature)[2]. For classical creators of culture, anything that distorts or questions nature is essentially anti-culture because, instead of developing, it causes man to question himself and ultimately lose.

Unfortunately, more and more often we experience completely different feelings. An example is the exhibition in spanish Baiona (Galicia region), with female nudes and Catholic allusions, around which a fierce discussion arose. Corpos, feminismo e territories (Bodies, feminism and territory) is the title of the photo exhibition that can be seen next to the entry to the local City Hall. It shows 18 female nudes, including two with references to Catholic symbolism. A group of women portrayed by photographer Alexandre Folgoso talks about „the oppression felt by women's bodies in every area of daily life”, as explained in the video posted on Baiona City Council YouTube channel. Models pose for photos without clothes, and in some cases with additives such as crosses painted on breasts, a chalice hiding genitals, a halo in the form of a tambourine and a vulgar inscription on the chest[3].

Nowadays, it is believed that the role of art is to show people what they do not want to see, and thus it is defined through the prism of deconstructionist postulates, typical for postmodern sensitivity.[4] This „questioning” of the synthesis or the whole becomes not only a means (after all there are „positive disintegrations”), but often an end in itself, which can be seen so clearly in many social processes, the postulates of which concern only opposition, without offering anything in return. Nevertheless, the idea of art cannot be based only on unmasking, provoking - its strength lies in taking up moral problems or ethical dilemmas, which are by nature development-oriented, because they are about making the right choice (right meaning for the benefit of the whole man). That is why artistic expression is not absolute freedom, but serves something more – it is a tool that cannot negate, for example, the dignity of man, from whom art originates and for whom it functions (and is financed from public funds). Being an artist does not exempt anyone from criminal liability, and sometimes, unfortunately, it seems that artists are allowed more for a rather surprising reason… simply for being artists.

Reducing art to the role of a temporary opposition to what the artist does not share or understand, however, is the impoverishment of art that ceases to seek and provide answers, becoming unmasking not only in form but also in its goals. By offending religious feelings, by testing the sensitivity of believers, the artists want to test the audience's reactions. They often admit over time that they have deliberately offended believers in order to record their reactions. Art, being a tool for searching for truth, beauty and goodness, can sometimes use tools or means of expression that break certain conventions, but do not harm the human being.

However, it is hard to resist the impression that blasphemous presentations, such as the one from a Spanish town, are an element of the politicization of art. This is evidenced by more and more political and social manifestos of people from theater, music or cinema, who used to care for their neutrality and made sure that their artistic search was not stigmatized with reference to the postulates of a specific party, and today they become an obvious tool in the ideological struggle. This engaged and politicizing art loses a lot, not only by alienating viewers who are more and more difficult to find, but also by dealing with the banality, as Zbigniew Herbert warned about in his poem Why the classics. So what is the solution? It is worth restoring sense to such classic terms as „art” or „culture”, artificially extended to cover everything, and redefine their tasks, that they involve not so much offending the other (so different from creative irony!), as respect for man and his place in the world, strengthening his search and revealing broad perspectives. Playing on borderline emotions, shocking – is a spiral that pushes the borders further and further, but not for a specific motivation or a constructive goal, but for the sole purpose of shocking. A tragic example in this respect is the burning of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, made for publicity and to inscribe in history.

Defenders of plays or performances that are offensive to believers - not to mention simple sensitivity to the recipient and taking into account his world of values - most often they justify their alleged right to use vulgar media by freedom of expression. We are then faced with a dilemma that seems to come from a change in the hierarchy of laws. Meanwhile, freedom of speech is no more important than religious freedom, because the latter concerns the whole man in his orientation towards the ultimate matters, expresses the identity of the person. In recent times, freedom of speech has been absolutized as the most important right. But it has never been so in the history of the struggle for human rights, because from the very beginning it was the freedom to worship, choose a religion and practice it freely that was one of the first and the basis of all others. Thus, religious freedom and respect for believers and their symbols are the litmus paper or culture. Perhaps this means that more should be expected from culture, but… maybe it's worth it? For the culture itself and its audience.


dr Agnieszka Brzezińska

Director of the Chopin Center in Szafarnia



[1] As professor Władysław Tatarkiewicz wrote: „Art is recreating things, or constructing forms, or expressing experiences – if the product of this reproduction, construction and expression is capable of delighting, moving or astounding”. W. Tatarkiewicz, Dzieje sześciu pojęć, ed. 3, Warsaw 1982, p. 52.

[2] Cf. P. Jaroszyński, Kultura. Dramat natury i osoby, Lublin 2020.

[3] Polémica en Baiona por una exposición con desnudos femeninos y alusiones católicas, [access date: 25.11.2020].

[4] More about the influence of Jacques Derrida and his postulates on culture in the thematic volume of the journal „Czas Kultury” 5/2014 (182).




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Autor: Laboratorium Wolności
Date: 18 December 2020
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