For centuries, blasphemy laws sought to suppress diverse expression by criminalizing any statement, spoken, written, painted, or otherwise presented, that diverged from traditional dogma, symbols or concepts. Blasphemy laws fell out of practice through the 19th and 20th centuries, as society became more secular and tolerance for diversity increased. Today, new angles have been employed to censor expression that contains unorthodox views, the most pervasive being restrictive funding practices. Religious groups finding offense with a play, film, painting, or book attempt to pull the rug out from under the artist or writer by using the “not with my tax dollars” argument, which criticizes governmental support for art that offends some members of the public.
Conflict arises when traditional religious values are challenged or confronted in an unorthodox manner. Artists struggle with their beliefs and may manifest their struggles and questions visually in order to explore their fears, the dogma, and the contradictions. They ask questions, provoke thought, and sometimes incite more conservative representatives of a religious tradition to heated protest. What is it about this art that has created such controversy? Chris Ofili’s multi-media work, The Holy Virgin Mary, showed the Virgin as black, with a three-dimensional breast made from a ball of elephant dung. Some Catholics were outraged. They saw a shit-smeared holy icon – a defaced Virgin. What they neglected to discover was that Ofili himself is a Catholic, and that he drew upon his African roots to represent his idea of the Virgin Mary. The elephant dung symbolizes fertility and the Earth in Ofili’s culture.
When groups impose their interpretation upon a work of art, a misunderstanding might emerge that can lead to accusations of blasphemy and inappropriateness.
It is not only in the visual arts that controversy arises. Religious groups have protested plays, films, and books, magazines, texts, sex education, and courses available in the nation’s schools. Religion, however, like any aspect of society, is fair game as a subject for commentary, artistic representation, and yes, even criticism. In a diverse community, it is inevitable that conflicts of beliefs will arise. Just because the work doesn’t comport with the dominant religious viewpoint does not justify attempts to prevent it from being part of the cultural fabric.