In 1999, the historic Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York City (one of the oldest and largest art museums in the United States) hosted Sensation
, a collection of works by young British artists. The museum described the exhibit as “an attempt to define a generation of artists and their diverse artistic visions” with themes to be found in the works including “contemporary and pop culture, identity politics, feminism, cultural diversity and racism, mortality, memory, class, and social criticism.”
The Museum’s Art Director at the time, Arnold Lehman, said of Sensation
: “Reflective of the contemporary artistic energy and creativity in Great Britain, the exhibition contains important work that provokes, challenges, and rewards the viewer.”
Two years prior, several of the exhibit’s works had generated substantial controversy in London. These include Marcus Harvey’s Myra,
a mosaic replication of the police photo of convicted child-murderer Myra Hindley; David Hurst’s The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living
, which featured a shark suspended in formaldehyde; Marc Quinn’s self-portrait, a frozen head made with pints of his own blood; and Sarah Lucas’ sexually explicit images and sculptures. At the Brooklyn Museum, however, Sensation
harbored controversy on account of another work: The Holy Virgin Mary
by Chris Ofili, a work made of paper collaged pornographic images, oil paint, glitter, polyester resin, map pins, and elephant dung on linen. Then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, offended as a Catholic, threatened to shut down funding for the Museum, stating that government subsidies cannot be used to desecrate religion.
The city’s Catholic and Jewish leadership issued public statements of a similar sentiment, while Hillary Clinton (who would soon announce her candidacy for New York Senator), the New York Civil Liberties Union, The New York Times
’ editorial board and numerous celebrity personalities articulated defenses of the artwork on account of the cherished civil freedom of speech.
What this incident at the intersection of race (the Madonna was represented as Black), religion, and representation unveils are several tensions that democracy in the United States must reckon with in its iconomy of power
. According to political philosopher Susan Buck-Morss, iconomy is to be understood as the economy of image.
In this rendering, economy is a metaphor, such that meaning (value) is relational and dependent on context. The icon provides direct, experiential access to enigmatic relationships of sovereign power. The concept of iconomy draws on the Aristotelian conception of economy as ‘household law,’ in which social cohesion is the precondition of political life (“implying relational orders of reciprocity and exchange”), wherein property and social inequality are prefigured.
Buck-Morss’ definition of the iconomy of power is useful for our approach to the Brooklyn Museum’s Sensation controversy. Through the iconomy of Ofili’s The Virgin Holy Mary, we can directly and experientially discern the (at times) enigmatic relationships of sovereign power. In this case, the sovereign power’s protection of free speech in artistic depictions superseded its obligations to prevent and redress the offense and outrage of New York City’s Catholic and Jewish faith-based sensibilities. Social cohesion and reciprocity, the preconditions of political life, were divided into dissenting factions: those who believed religious iconography ought to be spared from subversive and disrespectful rendering, and those who believed an abstract freedom of expression (no matter how distastefully articulated) ought to outweigh the claims of religious groups in defense of their tradition. Social inequality favored the secular parties over the religious ones.
In The Sunnah as Primordiality, Shaykh Abdalhakim Murad contends that Muslims today living amidst chaotic confusion far removed from nature, beauty, and saintly examples can nonetheless adhere to the prophetic sunnah in its outward and inward dimensions. Speaking of Western art in its present form, Murad states:
Perhaps this is why we Muslims find modern Western art particularly disagreeable and resistant to our contemplation: if art is the crystallisation of a civilisation, then to amble along the corridors of the Tate Gallery is to be confronted with a disturbing realisation. Christianity, when it was taken seriously by the cultural elite, produced significant works, which Muslims can recognise as beautiful, despite the inherent dangers of its love of the graven image. Christianity was sapped by the so-called enlightenment; and now that the enlightenment itself has run its course, the Western soul, as articulated by its most intelligent and most respected artistic representatives, has shifted its concerns to the human entrails. From the spirit, to the mind, to the body—and now to its waste products: a depressing trajectory, and one from which we avert our gaze.
The Brooklyn Museum’s Sensation exhibit provides a paradigmatic example of the most recent station in Western aesthetic descent from spirit, to mind, to body, to waste products. The picture is as dismal (if not more) when we survey the poetic arts, which today find their most prevalent and normative expression in the lyrics of popular music. The themes of today’s pop culture poetry pertain only to lower nafsi or egotistical/appetitive desires. The most prominent of these are love of wealth, untethered sexuality and fornication, tyrannical power (i.e., power to seize and compel unjustly), and abuse of pleasure-maximizing intoxicants. Today’s popular movies and television series promote a similar hierarchy of values. Our question becomes: what is the cultural imperative for American Muslims, given such a milieu?