VAN 2009 – Blasphemous Matters by Seamus Kealy

The Blasphemy Bill created by Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern speaks high in volume but is likely to have little muscle. This is the opinion of Andrea Martin – an Irish solicitor and legal adviser for media, who spoke recently on RTE about the background and realities of this Bill. But if the Bill will not actually be implemented for prosecutions, the question begs itself: Why is a retrograde law such as The Blasphemy Bill in existence?

The Bill states: “A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000.”

Blasphemous material is defined as material “that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.”

“Where a person is convicted of an offence under this section, the court may issue a warrant authorising the Garda Síochána to enter, if necessary using reasonable force, a premises where the member of the force has reasonable grounds for believing there are copies of the blasphemous statements in order to seize them.”

This essentially has given permission for the Garda to enter the exhibition ‘Medium Religion’ (1) and seize a number of artworks there – if a warrant were to be produced before mid August, that is. In the meantime, this Bill might provide empowerment for individuals of particular ideological persuasion to launch public assaults or dangerously condemn freedom of speech and artistic expression.

‘Medium Religion’ was intentionally brought to Ireland because of its content. The exhibition began in Germany and finishes in Montreal, but its stop here in Ireland is a significant step in its total formation. Irish audiences have repeatedly returned to the exhibition – some as many as 10 times – because they are interested in the discourses and issues that the exhibition examines. However, an interesting development has been the exchange between the public and the exhibition: there have been and continue to be individuals and groups who have entered the exhibition to worship some of the icons in the exhibition – namely the two giant images of Jesus. This demonstrates that Irish audiences, even those who might have strong religious persuasions, are modern enough and educated enough to interact with the exhibition and have ownership over much of it. These audiences, who are often not in exact ‘agreement’ with an exhibition that is often critical of religion and has instances of what could be deemed blasphemy, are not the people who Dermot Ahern is in touch with. It would seem that our earnest minister is more in tune with an imaginary public – from decades and decades past. Therefore, this Bill is a greater insult to the public who it is supposed to be serving than it is to artists and those possibly creating ‘infractions’ under its terms.

To please everyone is not possible – and if art was pleasing everyone, we might be more concerned about how static and monotonous it is. Art should have a role – a central role – in shaping opinions and our geo-cultural landscape. And when that is denied, then art will only speak louder – because good art and cultural practice are often instances of resisting and revealing the wrongs of this world.

One could list many examples of works of art, music and films that have scandalized the public – whether through appropriating religious imagery or not – from across the centuries. Provocation, scandal and iconoclasm have been the mainstay of most relevant forms of art. Outrage by large amounts of people has often been the reaction. From Sinead O’Connor’s spectacles to The Satanic Verses by Salman Rusdie to the Mohammed Cartoons in Denmark to a 2005 exhibition at the University of Toronto about Islam and femininity to The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese, through art movements of Surrealism, Dada, Suprematism, modern classical music, and well before modernism, there is a bulk of cultural memory that we might associate with the potential targets of this Bill. If we were to imagine all the above list – and any art, music or film that has a kinship with the above – to be suddenly removed from memory, or from any kind of experience today, that is surely a crime. The logic of this new law would then enforce that Monty Python’s The Life of Brian be removed from video shops and banned from cinemas, through perpetuity. The Bill, thus, reaches the limits of absurdity. I think that some people might enjoy this absurdity, where like in a Kafka novel, we see the reverse adage of life imitating art.

The reality is that this bill places Irish law and cultural tolerance in a place resembling the era of Church-governed intolerance. The question remains however – if the lawmakers have effectively stated that, “we’re going to create a law, but let’s not use it to prosecute,” who will take it seriously? I suggest we don’t, and we concentrate on more pressing matters at hand. The rule of law may define a society in some capacity – but its lack of inscription into a population – already demonstrated by the audiences of ‘Medium Religion’ – is a far greater indicator of that nation and people.

(1) ‘Medium Religion’ ran 24 May – 16 Aug 2009 at the Model Satellite space in Castle House, 9 Castle Street, Sligo. See for further details.

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