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Bigger Than Jesus: Art on Trial in Russia

Monday, June 12th, is judgment day for Yuri Samodurov, former director of Moscow’s Sakharov Museum, and Andrei Yerofeyev, a former curator of the Tretyakov Gallery. They face the possibility of three years of jail time for violating Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code, which prohibits dissemination of racial, national, and religious hatred. When they exhibited in 2006 the show “Forbidden Art,” which presented to the Russian public works banned from Russia’s museums for religious and/or nationalist reasons, they drew the ire of the Russian Orthodox church. The eyes of the art world turn to Russia as the latest chapter in the long battle for freedom of expression versus societal standards of decorum. Is this the "Bigger than Jesus" of the twenty-first century? Or will it be a victory for those hoping to reclaim religious imagery from the hands of fundamentalism?


In August 1966, John Lennon made an off-hand comment that The Beatles had become "more popular" or "bigger" than Jesus in the eyes of young people. An always astute social critic, Lennon was actually bemoaning that situation as a sad sign of the times. Unfortunately, fundamentalist forces misinterpreted his comment as a celebration of celebrity over divinity. Despite Lennon’s clarifications and apologies, bonfires fed by Beatles records and paraphernalia raged across the American South and Midwest. Ironically, Lennon wanted youth to reexamine their values and recover the true message of Jesus Christ—what I like to call the Jesus of the Beatitudes rather than the Christ of the Ten Commandments.

Similarly, the works in “Forbidden Art” aimed at provoking a reexamination of religion through art rather than at mocking or degrading anyone’s faith. A painting such as This Is My Blood/This Is My Body (shown), in which Christ’s "blood" is a Coca-Cola advertisement and His "body" lies beneath the McDonald's golden arches, asks us, as John Lennon did nearly half a century ago, where our values truly rest—with the simple message of spiritual communion or with commercial messages of powerful conglomerate branding? Are Jesus and Christianity simply another "brand" for people to identify with on a surface level—with the unthinking attachment of brand loyalty—rather than the critically examined faith of true believers?

This case will set a standard either way. Other Russian artists already have felt the chilling effect of Article 282. Russian artist and blogger Lena Hades faces prosecution for comments said to "defame the Russian soul." In truth, nothing defames the Russian soul more than the legalization of limited speech through Article 282. How strong is a faith if it can never be tested or challenged by art? Art has historically served as a powerful conduit for greater spiritual awareness. To close off that avenue of spirituality would be a great loss, a defamation of religion as something weak and small rather than powerful and immense on a cosmic scale. Here’s hoping that the court exonerates Samodurov and Yerofeyev and sets off a domino effect in which art can continue to speak freely to free the people. I hate to imagine a domino effect set in the opposite direction, in which the powers of repression coupled with a misguided sense of religious certainty silence those simply trying to say something valuable about God and our understanding of Him (Her?). The separation of church and state in this country seems tenuous enough without an overseas example to help erase that line entirely.

UPDATE: The court found Samodurov and Yerofeyev guilty but fined them instead of imposing jail time. My initial reaction is that it’s a mixed victory. The fine seems to be a concession to the religious groups, while the lack of jail time sends a message that even the judges question the validity of the law. The real test will be how judges decide the next Article 282 case. Will they follow suit and further question the law itself in their decision, or will they impose jail time and swing the situation back to a more serious tone? Only time will tell.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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