Blog by Terry Cox-Joseph
I don’t consider myself a religious snob. I don’t even go to church. So when I first saw the Finnish artist Jani Leinonen’s "McJesus" sculpture on Facebook, I surprised even myself with my reaction. I thought it was offensive and stupid. I thought, "Why? What's the message?" It was clearly a slam against the corporate world, with McDonald's as the poster child, but was it about corporate capitalism being sacrificed or was about capitalism replacing Christianity?
The sculpture is part of an exhibit in a Haifa, Israel art gallery called “Sacred Goods.” The traveling exhibit had not caused problems in other countries, nor had it caused problems in Israel up until now. But apparently, it was shared with the wrong people—aka devout Arab Christians—on social media and riots ensued. Someone threw a firebomb. Police responded with tear gas and stun grenades. The next day, hundreds protested.
Leinonen was shocked at the response, saying that he himself was a Christian. Museum director Nissim Tal said that he was shocked at the sudden uproar.
Considering that the exhibit also includes Barbie doll renditions of a bloodied Jesus and the Virgin Mary, “McJesus” is in good company. Dressed in his representative, bright yellow outfit, sporting bright orange hair, he hangs on a simple wooden cross, head bowed. The artist included nice touches like tying Ronald’s tunic in a knot to mimic Jesus’ woven girdle. To say that it is a confusing message is an understatement. This is one case where shock value obliterates the message.
Leinonen states that the sculpture was “intended to criticize what many view as society's cult-like worship of capitalism.” Ah, yes, capitalism, that cause of all things evil yet desirable, the concept that makes people work hard for a living.
“This is very offensive and I cannot consider this art," Haifa artist and devout Christian Amir Ballan said. I have to agree, in part, with Ballan. It is offensive, and it’s not the best art you’ll ever see. Nothing on the scale of say, Bernini. (Never mind that he created pro-Christian sculptures of adoration.) However, I disagree that that the art should be removed, as he and hundreds of rioting Christians have demanded.
Also calling for removal are church representatives and even Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev, who threatened to withhold state funds to the museum if it continues to display the work. “Disrespect of religious symbols sacred to many worshippers in the world as an act of artistic protest is illegitimate and cannot serve as art at a cultural institution supported by state funds,” she told the museum. Ah, now we’re approaching an American reaction. (NEA funds, anyone?) Church representatives were only slightly more judicious, bringing their grievances to the district court Monday (January 15), demanding it order the removal of the exhibit's most offensive items, including the aforementioned Barbie dolls.
Now that my eyebrows are back in place (they leapt off my forehead when I first saw the image), I have to say that this sculpture certainly pales in comparison to the infamous Andres Serrano piece from 1987, "Piss Christ," a creation so outrageous, it defies definition. Plus, no one got the point. In case you missed it, or you were born after the millennium, it is a photograph of a crucifix immersed in a glass of urine. Serrano received a grant of $20,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts for this piece, and presumably, others.
Which brings me back to Regev, who called to withhold state funds from the museum. Too late. The exhibit was already assembled and displayed. She will merely recreate the steps that we Americans took in the ‘80s and ‘90s, where museums yanked controversial shows, but like the Hirschhorn, in doing so created more controversy. Legislators drafted laws disallowing pornographic imagery (such as Mapplethorpe’s black-and-white homo-erotic, exploitative photographs). Within six months, they had to re-word the legislation because the laws created even more flavors of controversy by threatening to withhold funding if exhibits were not properly vetted.
In the meantime, museum director Tal has placed a curtain in the doorway of the “Sacred Goods” show, along with a trigger warning. To his credit, he refuses to remove the artwork, saying that doing so would infringe on freedom of expression.
"We need to understand that freedom of expression is interpreted in different ways in different societies," said Wadie Abu Nassar, an adviser to church leaders. "If this work was directed against non-Christians, the world would be turned upside down."
Put another way, if this were a sculpture of Mohammed eating a McMuffin, Leinonin would be dead right now.
Speaking of whom, Leinonen has backpedaled like a high-speed cartoon character. He told The Jerusalem Post that he thought his piece had already been eliminated from the “Sacred Goods” exhibit because he had asked for its removal. But not because it was offensive to minority Christian Arabs. Having recently joined the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, he stated that “Israel overtly uses culture as a form of propaganda to whitewash or justify its regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid over the Palestinian people.”
You would think he’d have read the itinerary for the show before he entered it. I would suggest we divest of any future artwork he brings our way. Leinonen is a few fries short of a Happy Meal.