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• • • Being a journal by artist and designer John Coulthart, cataloguing interests, obsessions and passing enthusiasms.


 

Last Suppers and last straws

folsom.jpg

Hardly a week passes without the religious right in America getting their knickers in a twist over some new iniquity, a condition so commonplace that new outbreaks are barely worth acknowledging. However, this week’s storm in a teacup caught my attention for being art-related.

If there’s one thing certain American Christians have in common with Muslim fundamentalists, it’s the habit of reacting to anything remotely gay with all the composure of caged baboons being prodded with sharp sticks. The pointed implement on this occasion has been the poster for the Folsom Street Fair, an annual Leather Pride/BDSM event held in San Francisco. The photograph by FredAlert (site NSFW) continues what’s become a minor tradition in artistic parody by working a variation on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1498), with leather girls and guys for the disciples and a black man in the place of Leonardo’s Jesus. The flag on the table is a Leather Pride flag. The intent behind the poster was explained by Andy Cooper, one of the event’s organisers:

There is no intention to be particularly pro-religion or anti-religion with this poster; the image is intended only to be reminiscent of the Last Supper painting. It is a distinctive representation of diversity with women and men, people of all colors and sexual orientations.

(…)

We hope that people will enjoy the artistry for what it is—nothing more or less. Many people choose to speculate on deeper meanings. This is one artist’s imagining of the Last Supper, and we have made it our own. The irony is that da Vinci was widely considered to be homosexual. In truth, we are going to produce a series of inspired poster images over the next few years. Next year’s poster ad may take inspiration from American Gothic by Grant Wood or Edvard Munch’s The Scream or even The Sound of Music! I guess it wouldn’t be Folsom Street Fair without offending some extreme members of the global community, though.

To judge by the splenetic frothing of groups such as the Concerned Women for America, it seems they managed a double helping of offence this year. The CWA see a deliberate attack on their religion, something I can’t see at all. While the reaction may seem to be harmless bluster, it should be noted that groups such as CWA and the more substantial American Family Association receive a lot of money via donations from supporters. Moral panics and perennial threats to civilisation have become a means to drum up additional support (ie: cash) to safeguard what they claim are Christian values. And gay people/rights/events have become a convenient whipping boy (so to speak) for fund-raising. As Joe Murray, ex-staff attorney for the American Family Association writes, this is now a multi-million dollar business:

It is not coincidental that the road to Hell is paved with the best of intentions, thus while one hopes that conservative leaders, such as Don Wildmon, began their crusade motivated by morality, it appears that a number of them have been hypnotized by the siren song of the almighty dollar.

Christian activism has become a lucrative business. According to its 990 form, the AFA took in millions. Arguably, such revenue was made possible by sending out “Action Alerts” warning homosexuals will throw Christians in jail under the hate crimes bill. Such rhetoric is misleading at best, dishonest at worse.

How does one protect Christianity? Send money. Call it cash-back Christianity…

Public complaints about blasphemy or other slights are always double-edged. Without the outrage I probably wouldn’t have noticed the Folsom poster, despite reading gay news blogs every day. But thanks to the CWA this isn’t the only blog now replicating the picture or showing similar examples of alleged Leonardo abuse. It hardly needs pointing out that the two other paintings mentioned in the Folsom Street Fair statement are also very popular as parody subjects and parody doesn’t work at all if the original reference isn’t well-known. Leonardo’s two most famous works are the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper and the latter proves attractive for parodists by being a group scene presented in tableaux form. The Last Supper, American Gothic and Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam must be the three most-parodied paintings in art history; many of the Last Supper variations?including versions by Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol?are very well-known and have been around for years.

viridiana.jpg

Viridiana, directed by Luis Buñuel (1961).

If it’s provocation you’re after, look no further than Buñuel, a lifelong atheist who delighted in playful blasphemy. This moment in Viridiana is one of the earliest significant modern parodies and caused considerable outrage at the time since the re-staging is done using a crowd of beggars. This is one of the few examples where honest offence was a specific intention.

mash.jpg

M*A*S*H, directed by Robert Altman (1972).

sopranos.jpg

Jesus the mobster: Tony Soprano and family by Annie Leibovitz (1999).

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The inevitable Simpsons version from Thank God It’s Doomsday (2005).

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Tribute to Women, a fashion ad from Marithé et François Girbaud (2005).

The Girbaud photograph above caused concern in France and Italy not for its female Christ but for the presence of a shirtless man. (No, I don’t understand that either.) These are just a small percentage of the many parodies to be found online; there are a lot more.

There’s a degree of hypocrisy at work here since Christians themselves aren’t above using the painting for their own advertising purposes (although it seems that CAN now omit that particular campaign from their history). What’s evident is that reaction towards a given parody seems directly proportional to the identity of its creators, the people acting out the scene and the amount of prejudice at work. From the current reaction it seems that a shirtless and (possibly) gay black man is far worse than a murderous Italian-American or a feckless drunk like Homer Simpson. The Sopranos photo appeared in Vanity Fair (and I expect it’s now in several books) so would have had far greater circulation than the Folsom Street poster which will only be used for a few weeks this year. Furthermore, none of the images shown above are remotely religious, none bear any indication that the central figure is supposed to be Jesus, the only factor for comparison is the pose which replicates a famous painting. Leonardo’s picture is a representation of Jesus and his disciples; the parodies are a representation of a representation. In most instances the religious dimension is completely incidental, all that counts is having a group sitting at a table with the central and/or dominant character in the centre of the picture. If the painting was just as well-known but represented a secular scene, as American Gothic does, the parody would still be valid only there would be no room for outrage.

leonardo.jpg

St. John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci (1513?1516).

I’ve always been surprised by Christians rushing so quickly to the defence of Leonardo, his sexuality aside, he was easily the least pious of all the great names of the Renaissance. Michelangelo’s faith is well-documented but Leonardo’s seems ambivalent at best. He famously ignored the church prohibition against dissecting cadavers and a number of the figures in his later works are very curious, such as the strangely demonic St. Anne in the sketch for Madonna and Child with St Anne and the Young St John (1507–1508). This thoroughly androgynous figure is shown raising a phallic forefinger to heaven, a gesture that still provokes debate as to its meaning. The same androgyny and brandished finger can be seen in other paintings (a raised finger also appears in The Last Supper), especially the smirking and distinctly feminine St. John the Baptist (above). A similar St. John in the Wilderness (1510–1515) is also known as Bacchus on account of his animal-skin loincloth and crown of vine leaves. It’s a very lax piety that allows a religious portrayal to slip so easily into outright paganism.

But lessons in art history are academic, really. People who routinely dismiss evolutionary science are unlikely to be swayed by any argument however reasonable, while others may have less-than-sincere motives for their bluster. The moral, if we need to look for one, might be “Don’t prod the baboons”. But the baboons would shriek anyway—it’s what they do.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The art of ejaculation
The last circle of the Inferno
Behold the (naked) man
Giant Skeleton and the Chocolate Jesus
The Poet and the Pope
Angels 1: The Angel of History and sensual metaphysics
Gay for God
Michelangelo revisited

 


 

Posted in {art}, {fashion}, {film}, {gay}, {painting}, {photography}, {religion}, {television}.

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16 comments or trackbacks

  1. #1 posted by Vespal Virgin

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    As a non-practising atheist and homophobe (I’m good enough at both now), I have to say a plague in terms of both their houses. The fundies are hysterical and the gays are exhibitionists. As Saki writes in “The Story of St Vespaluus”:

    “But your Majesty’s Christian principles?” exclaimed the bewildered Chamberlain.

    “I never had any,’ said Vespaluus; `I used to pretend to be a Christian convert just to annoy Hkrikros. He used to fly into such delicious tempers. And it was rather fun being whipped and scolded and shut up in a tower all for nothing.”

    People who routinely dismiss evolutionary science are unlikely to be swayed by any argument however reasonable…

    You wouldn’t have to be a fundie to dismiss evolutionary science: see S.J. Gould et al. And what about Gregory Cochran’s pathogenic hypothesis of homosexuality? Is it dismissed as bad science or bad ideology?

    [works now?]

  2. #2 posted by John

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    Some gays are exhibitionists, just as some straight people are. Judging a large group of people by the standards of one or two parades makes as much sense as judging another group by what goes on during hen nights or stag parties.

    I’ve no opinion on Cochran’s hypothesis since I’m not a scientist. But the jury is still out on the causes of homosexuality.

  3. #3 posted by Wiley

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    Hey John, Q: What’s the difference between the religious right and the Manson Family?
    A: Absolutely nothing.

    Well, the answer is debatable, but hopefully some idiot will take extreme offense to the statement and your site and artwork will get a lot of publicity as a result.

    As far as any psychologists’ views regarding homosexuality; none of them are worth shit because none of these big names in psychology agree with one another at all. Freudian’s, behaviorists, humanists, geneticists all think the others’ hypotheses are madness, which makes it somewhat difficult to take the word of any psychology major seriously in my opinion. Since other animals don’t tend to have as complex a cerebrum, nor do they tend to deal with the level of emotional problem that humans do and, nevertheless, many species harbor homosexuals, I think that its a matter of nature and not a matter of what repressed individuals may say it is.

  4. #4 posted by Nathalie

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    Have been shaking my head since I saw your post yesterday…
    I love the picture by the way, I quite love that type of parodies. All the best if they ruffle a few righteous feathers.
    Funny enough, I’ve just tried to see if the St John was the one I was thinking about and clicked on the link, getting an “access denied” message from the proxy server (I am at work – I know I should have look at this yesterday evening but was cooking instead) on the ground of the page beignin the “Category : “Art/Culture/Heritage;Nudity”", which we all know is a taboo at work (especially culture). Think I am going to put a little Art/Culture/Heritage;Nudity on my blog, just to show I am having none of that nonsense….

  5. #5 posted by John

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    Wiley: It’s probably a bit unfair to Charlie comparing him to religious nitwits–although he may be one himself these days, I haven’t read anything about him recently. But in interviews he often had a more considered and realistic view of American society than the CWA.

    Last I read of the current science on homosexuality research pointed to a combination of genetic factors. I could link to a newspaper article but half of it is now behind a paywall. Many gay men and women (but not all) have physical characteristics in common such as finger length and left-handedness. Being a second child (as I am) is a very common factor but again there are exceptions. As I said above, the jury is still out.

    Nathalie: That’s odd since the Leonardo painting isn’t nude. The link goes to Artrenewal.org who have a great selection of pictures but whose site and attitudes are very conservative (they hate modern art) so it’s funny them being on a blacklist. Boing Boing is a good source of places to go to evade web filters, so much so that they get blacklisted themselves.

  6. #6 posted by Vestal Virgin

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    Some gays are exhibitionists, just as some straight people are. Judging a large group of people by the standards of one or two parades makes as much sense as judging another group by what goes on during hen nights or stag parties.

    No, I didn’t say “gays are exhibitionists”, but “the gays”, i.e. these ones. But the kapok-crunching community are more exhibitionist in tendency. I don’t believe in “Oppressed minorities are just the same as their oppressors, except where they’re much better.”

    I’ve no opinion on Cochran’s hypothesis since I’m not a scientist.

    But his hypothesis rests on evolutionary science, which you do have an opinion on, despite etc. Many gays would dismiss the hypothesis out of hand on ideological grounds.

    But the jury is still out on the causes of homosexuality.

    It’s more common among men, who are more susceptible to pathologies. A good thing in certain ways. Men vary much more than women and genius is a kind of pathology. To adapt Camille Paglia: no female da Vinci, no female Dahmer.

    Last I read of the current science on homosexuality research pointed to a combination of genetic factors.

    Cochran argues persuasively that it’s too reproductively costly to be genetic in a simple sense, i.e. it’s not maintained by conferring some advantage.

    I could link to a newspaper article but half of it is now behind a paywall. Many gay men and women (but not all) have physical characteristics in common such as finger length and left-handedness.

    Left-handedness is often or even usually a pathological condition. More common among men again — I’m an androphobe too.

    Being a second child (as I am) is a very common factor but again there are exceptions. As I said above, the jury is still out.

    I think the idea about birth order is that a male foetus provokes an immune response in the mother, which is stronger in later male pregnancies. Homosexuality is part of life’s rich tapestry, but I don’t believe it’s natural in the way that heterosexuality is.

  7. #7 posted by John

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    You know, Simon (it is Simon, isn’t it?), I’d be happy to debate this with anyone else, including a fundamentalist Christian. But not with you. I’ve seen far too much of your carping, borderline belligerence and sniffy superiority elsewhere in the past, not least the goading bullshit you send now and then to my colleagues at Savoy Books. Your presence isn’t welcome here. Piss off.

  8. #8 posted by Wiley

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    Hell yeah, this thread is getting frisky. Hopefully I don’t add to anything more volatile to the situation. A lot of my friends sport Charlie on their shirts so I probably ought to explain myself.

    Obviously he is far more fascinating than religious politicians, with random exceptions like the Inquisition, and I actually have no problem with arrogance, just not that self-righteous and egocentric variety. He didn’t even do any of the dirty work himself, and of all the insufferable yuppies there are out there, why did his entourage have to fuck with the Polanski household. Just one more thing poor old Roman has experienced that few others in the First World could possibly relate to, and his fans constantly take heat for liking him from hordes of lemmings who, all because of slip up with a teenager, compare him to more prolific molestors of toddlers, but deny there is any blood on American politicians hands.

  9. #9 posted by Thombeau

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    In my Book of Books, you are St. John the Divine.

    Your brother in Being,
    Fr. Thom the Fabulous

  10. #10 posted by John

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    Thanks, Thom, Fabulous beats Doubting, I reckon.

    Wiley: Don’t worry about the above.

    Re: Charlie and co., I seem to recall that the Polanski household had the misfortune to be in the wrong place when Manson was looking for someone to punish after his failure to get a record deal.

    I’ve always had the greatest respect for Roman P regardless of his private life; artists should be judged by their works, not how they behave as people. If the opposite was the case then we’d have to say Caravaggio was an inferior painter because he killed someone.

  11. #11 posted by Sweating Through Fog

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    You quoted the press the release from Folsom Street Fair. When you read he whole thing, you realize how silly it is:
    http://www.folsomstreetfair.com/fair-press.php?relNum=77

    Christians can do parody too:

    September 25, 2008

    FOLSOM STREET EVENTS? LAUNCHES POSTER DESIGN FOR 25th ANNUAL FOLSOM STREET FAIR?
    Poster image draws inspiration from the annual Islamic Hajj, in a poster entitled: Masjid al-Harem.

    Folsom Street Events has released its latest poster design for the 25TH Annual Folsom Street Fair. This year, the official poster, drawn by renowned artist Theo van Gogh, uses well-known community members as players in a strikingly original interpretation of the annual, worldwide pilgrimage to Mecca. The poster is the second in a series that draws from well-known paintings, album covers, movie posters, or other iconic images. Community members celebrate exuberant sexuality by donning their S/M regalia, and dancing around not the Kaaba, but a 10 story phallus.

    According to Andy Copper, Board President, ?We are extremely pleased with the outcome of this poster, and we are looking forward to a particularly inspirational event season. There is no intention to be particularly pro-religion or anti-religion with this poster; the image is intended only to celebrate the sacred roots of raw sexuality. It is a distinctive representation of diversity with women and men, people of all colors and sexual orientations. Just as Mecca draws people of all races throughout the world, we hope people from all continents will come come celebrate with us!?

    Folsom Street Events acknowledges that many of the people in the leather and fetish communities are spiritual and that this poster image is a way of expressing that side of the community?s interests and beliefs. This year, Folsom Street Fair is dedicated to ?San Francisco Values,? previously used against the San Francisco community for its support of sexual diversity and now used by Folsom Street Events as a way to reclaim power by the fetish community.

    Andy Copper, adds ?We hope that people will enjoy the artistry for what it is ? nothing more or less. Many people choose to speculate on deeper meanings. This is one artist?s imagining of a pilgrimage that is at one both sexual and sacred – all we did was adopt the iconography of Mecca and make it our own. The irony is that homosexuality has a long and wonderful history in Islam. In truth, we are going to produce a series of inspired poster images over the next few years. Next year?s poster ad may take inspiration from American Gothic by Grant Wood, the flag raising at Iwo Jima, or even Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’ – community members are already preparing for roles in that one!”

    When asked about the murder of the poster artist, Theo van Gogh, and the worldwide rioting that has claimed dozens of lives, Copper said: “I guess it wouldn?t be Folsom Street Fair without offending some extreme members of the global community, though.?

  12. #12 posted by John

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    Christians can do parody too

    Poorly, it seems. The above implies that the Folsom poster is primarily intended as a parody of a Christian event. It isn’t; it’s a parody of a painting which is the product of Leonardo’s imagination. There are very few images related to Islam which could be parodied in this manner and none of them are well-known enough for the concept of parody–which requires familiarity with the source image–to work. The automatic equation of Christianity and Islam completely misses the point. The Folsom poster has as much to do with the Gospels as parodies of American Gothic have to do with Midwest farmers.

    As for the Iwo Jima flag-raising, you probably haven’t seen this:

    http://www.lacoctelera.com/myfiles/utilisimos/raising_gay_flag.jpg

  13. #13 posted by Sweating Through Fog

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    The above implies that the Folsom poster is primarily intended as a parody of a Christian event. It isn’t; it’s a parody of a painting which is the product of Leonardo’s imagination.

    Clearly you started to get it, but then pulled back. Leonardo’s imagination of . . what exactly? What do you think Leonardo was imagining, and is there any remote possibility that the object of his imagination has any relevance to the controversy? Clearly the Fair organizers thought it did, because I seem to recall some mention of “spirituality” in the Fair press release, Perhaps hey were referring to Wicca, Judaism, Shinto…? Seventh Day Adventists perhaps?

  14. #14 posted by John

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    If the Folsom people make themselves hostages to fortune, that’s their affair. I was attempting to address some wider issues. Was there equivalent outrage about the Annie Leibowitz photo, for instance, which would have been seen by a lot more people? Yes, Leonardo was imagining a scene from the Gospels, no one denies that. As I said in the original post:

    “In most instances the religious dimension is completely incidental, all that counts is having a group sitting at a table with the central and/or dominant character in the centre of the picture.”

    As far as the question of blasphemy is concerned, I don’t give a damn (so to speak). I’ve done a few things myself which could be interpreted as blasphemous:

    http://www.johncoulthart.com/retinacula/rev4page.html

    but blasphemy as it’s usually conceived was never the intention; it too easy, whoever it’s aimed at. Of course people get agitated if you stamp on the things they find sacred. Going out of your way to do that invariably ends up reinforcing the thing you’re stamping on and giving it some additional validity. It’s a poor attack that ends up as a backhanded compliment.

  15. #15 posted by Sweating Through Fog

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    Of course people get agitated if you stamp on the things they find sacred. Going out of your way to do that invariably ends up reinforcing the thing you’re stamping on and giving it some additional validity. It’s a poor attack that ends up as a backhanded compliment.

    I agree completely

  16. #16 posted by Shayan

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    I praised Bunuel for this innovation, but you forgot that marvelous scene in Mel Brook’s “history of the world part I”!

 


 

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