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Art and Sacredness: A Hostile Relationship
If art is designed to provoke the passions, it does not confine itself to the pleasant ones.
A few weeks ago Glenn Beck put a President Obama bobblehead in a mason jar filled with yellow liquid euphemistically described as “warm.” Days earlier, a college gallery in Boston displayed a controversial painting by Michael D’Antuono that depicts President Obama as a crucified Christ figure. D’Antuono’s painting was slated to go on display in New York City’s Union Square in 2009, but protests from Christian groups prevented it. Beck defended D’Antuono’s freedom of expression and reminded viewers that offensive art – even a bobblehead of President Obama in a jar of urine – does not trump Constitutional rights.
Beck’s art project, titled Obama in Pee Pee, is homage to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucified Christ figure in a jar of Serrano’s urine. Serrano’s 1987 photograph was predictably controversial. It sparked debates about where US public arts funding should go. On Palm Sunday in 2011, French Catholic fundamentalists smashed it with hammers as part of an “anti-blasphemy campaign.” Last September, a small group of Catholics protested outside the Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery when the gallery displayed it.
The history of art is scattered with moments of hostility. The French rioted when Stravinsky debuted the The Rite. Michelangelo’s depiction of nude figures in The Sistine Chapel outraged the Italian cardinal Oliviero Carafo, who pushed a censorship campaign to remove the frescos. Picasso experienced similar criticisms. If art is designed to provoke the passions, it does not confine itself to the pleasant ones.
In 2008, psychologists Jessica Cooper and Paul Silvia at the University of North Carolina conducted an experiment to measure the relationship between controversial contemporary photography and anger, disgust and rejection. In the first experiment 80 undergrads viewed 14 full-color photographs. Some were mundane, but others, including Serrano’s Piss Christ and a Robert Mapplethorpe photo, were not. The undergrads used a 1-7 point scale to answer questions about disgust (I find this picture disgusting), anger (this picture makes me angry) and rejection (should this be allowed at the Weatherspoon Art Museum?*). Cooper and Silvia found, as predicted, that the more anger and disgust the participants felt the more they rejected the provocative photos.
The second experiment was identical to the first but with a twist. A brand new group of participants (78 undergrads) viewed eight photos. Again, some were mundane and a few were provocative. This time the researchers asked the participants if they would like a postcard of Piss Christ sent to them as a thank you. Cooper and Silvia found that anger and disgust influenced the probability of reject – even though many participants who were not angry rejected it.
Cooper and Silvia’s study reminds me of Jonathan Haidt’s research on sacredness. Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU, argues that sacredness applies to objects (a holy book), places (Mecca), people (Jesus, Muhammad) and principles (E pluribus unum). Sacredness is like social glue; it binds individuals into moral communities. However, once the community deems something sacred, devotees can no longer think clearly about it, hence Haidt’s maxim that sacredness binds and blinds.** And because sacredness is linked to disgust – both literally and figuratively – Catholics find Piss Christ not just sacrilegious but impure as well.
With perhaps the exception of heretics and apostates, artists suffer invariably from dogmatic regulations surrounding the depiction of sacred objects imposed by organized religion. If change and innovation is central to art, regulating the visual world is an automatic bane on the artists’ creative output. In his magnum opus, The Story of Art, Ernst Gombrich outlines one example of how censorship affects creativity and innovation in art.
The proper purpose of art in churches proved of immense importance for the whole history in Europe. For it was one of the principal issues on which the Eastern, Greek-speaking parts of the Roman Empire, whose capital was Byzantium or Constantinople, refused to accept the lead of the Latin Pope. One part was against all images of a religious nature. They were called iconoclasts or smashers… The Eastern Church, therefore, could no longer allow the artist to follow his fancy in these works. Surely it was not any beautiful painting of a mother with her child that could be accepted as the true sacred image or ‘icon’ of the Mother of God, but only types hallowed by an age-old tradition… The stress on tradition, and the necessity of keeping to certain permitted ways of representing Christ or the Holy Virgin, made it difficult for Byzantine artists to develop their personal gifts.
Early Islamic artists experienced even harsher regulations, some of which still exist today.
The religion of the Mohammedan conquerors of Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, North Africa and Spain, was even more rigorous in this matter than Christianity had been. The making of images was forbidden… Later sects among the Mohammedans were less strict in their interpretation of the ban on images. They did allow the paintings of figures and illustrations as long as they had no connexion with religion.
Is it a surprise that participants in Cooper and Silvia’s study who were more ring-wing tended to reject the provocative photos more than participants who ranked higher on measurements of curiosity and interest in art?
Non-believers might have trouble relating given sacredness’ tight relationship to religion. But what’s sacred is not necessarily religious. If you’re a secular liberal, think about urinating on the UN declaration of human rights. Sacredness pervades everybody, even staunch secularists and atheists. The only difference with religion-based sacredness is that rules surrounding it are, in general, less tolerant and flexible. This is why artists are usually happier living in secular democratic societies that value free speech. It’s not a puzzle why Saudi Arabia is not a hub for artistic innovation, or why China discriminates Ai WeiWei and his art. If art is an expression, it only flourishes when people have the freedom to express themselves.
It is with this in mind that I appreciate Beck’s defense of D’Antuono. Beck’s obsession with the liberation party and traditional American values is strange – his theatrics are stranger – but, as an American, I agree that the Constitution is a sacred object; I would not feel comfortable putting it in a jar of my urine. But if Haidt is correct that we lose the ability to think clearly once we declare something sacred, then maybe the role of the artist is to highlight our delusions. In this regard, George Braque was right, art is meant to disturb.
* Is the art museum at UNC
** According to Haidt, many other moral foundations bind and blind. Not just sacredness.
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.