The Wednesday attack against cartoonists of the satirical French paper Charlie Hedbo is the latest bloody reminder of the consequences that can come from practicing our most sacred and powerful form of expression. Artistic types have been testing the lines of free expression since time immemorial, and this exercise has long tested nerves and inspired brutal backlashes or suppression.
Nazis banished all “degenerate” art, comic books sparked protests throughout the post-WWII years, and censorship of provocative films continues. Even now, we struggle with how conflicts involving religion and politics come to a head in art, and many societies dole out punishment to those who would dare test the boundaries. Sometimes, the repercussions reach beyond the creators and affect hundreds or thousands. Here are a few examples of the violence that controversial art has inspired.
The Innocence of Muslims
No film trailer has had such catastrophic international repercussions as “The Innocence of Muslims,” an amateur and offensive depiction of the prophet Muhammed as a murderer. When a clip of it was aired on Egyptian television in 2012, protests erupted across the country. The unrest soon made its fiery way across the world’s Muslim-majority nations, from Iran to Nigeria to Malaysia. Tens of thousands of protesters rushed to city squares and U.S. embassies, and hundreds were killed. In Yemen, 60 vehicles at the American compound were burned. In Pakistan, the government announced a national holiday specifically to rail against the film. And in what at first appeared to be related incident, but would later prove to have been pre-planned, the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, was stormed and four Americans were killed, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
The mysterious man behind “The Innocence of Muslims” has since been jailed on separate charges and in February, a federal court ruled that Google had to remove the video from YouTube after a drawn-out lawsuit by one of the actresses.
Behzti by Gurpreet Kaur Ghatti
In 2004, a play titled Behzti (Dishonor) made its debut at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in England to massive protests by the Sikh community. Their qualms were with a rape and murder scene that was set inside a Sikh temple, and nearly 400 turned up to storm the theater. None of the audience members were hurt, but five police officers were injured and the entire theater was evacuated. “Religion and art have collided for centuries, and will carry on doing battle long after my play and I are forgotten,” playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti wrote in The Guardian after the play was canceled and she was forced to go into hiding.
It’s been 10 years since the world first witnessed the fervor created by offensive cartoons with Islamic themes. In 2005, a Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten published a sketch of the prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. The cartoon was republished and broadcast across the Middle East, and hundreds of people were killed in protests. From Syria to Nigeria to Indonesia, Danish embassies were attacked, bombed, and burned, and later so were Italian and Norwegian missions. The anger didn’t fizzle out. In 2006, a “day of rage” was announced, and scores more were killed. In the years to come, violence has continuously been ignited by the drawings.
Despite bounties on their heads, the paper’s editor and artist haven’t been injured. Cartoonist Kurt Westergaard was placed under 24-hour protection, and in 2010 narrowly survived an attack by an axe-wielding man in his home. Flemming Rose, the newspaper’s culture editor, was also targeted for assassination but the plot was foiled.
The Satanic Verses
Author Salman Rushdie says his life has never returned to normal after penning The Satanic Verses more than 25 years ago. In the book, Rushdie mocks the Quran and the prophet Muhammad. The response was swift: violent demonstrations exploded across the world, the book was banned, and Iran’s then-supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, puts a $5 million fatwa on Rushdie’s head. Rushdie has emerged unscathed, and published many more books, but not all who were involved were so lucky. The translator of the Japanese version of “The Satanic Verses” was killed, and others involved were threatened. In 1998, 10 years after the book was published, Iran lifted the death sentence placed on Rushdie, and he has cautiously emerged from hiding.
The Rite of Spring
A crowded theater in Paris was eager to hear the latest from Russian composer Igor Stravinsky in 1913, but the ballet that played out on stage wasn’t what they had in mind. ”The Rite of Spring” depicted a savage, spasmodic style of dancing that was so displeasing to viewers they began throwing vegetables at the dancers and soon were fist-fighting among themselves. Before the police could arrive, there was a full-blown riot in the audience. After a controversial six-show run, the ballet closed and wasn’t appreciated until years later. Today, it’s lauded as a masterpiece.
The Birth of a Nation
It may have been called an epic and groundbreaking piece of cinematography, but D.W. Griffith’s Civil War film was also widely condemned upon its 1915 release. Though white audiences flocked to the theaters, the NAACP fought against “Birth of a Nation’s” blatant racism. Riots erupted outside theaters that showed it, and the NAACP filed injunctions against the theater owners, arguing the film was a threat to public safety. Klan membership got a boost with the movie by using it as a recruitment tool, and it’s thought that lynchings were inspired in part by the film.
Fire by Deepa Mehta
Though she was forced to accept a constant security detail after releasing a film about a lesbian relationship in Delhi, director Deepa Mehta was undeterred from making two follow-up films in the trilogy. In 1998, “Fire” was pulled from theaters in India after Shiv Sena, an extremist Hindu group, launched demonstrations against the depiction of a lesbian couple choosing to be together. At least 15 theaters across the country were stormed, and protests were held outside the homes of the leading actors.
Two years later, Mehta began filming a second film, “Water,” also in India, but was forced to relocate the shoot after mobs destroyed her set and threatened her. Many theaters were too afraid to screen the movie and when DVDs started appearing on the market they were burned and shopkeepers were intimidated into not selling copies.
Submission by Theo Van Gogh
In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh directed a short film called “Submission” that depicted an abused and almost naked women painted with Quranic verses. He intended it to be a call for women’s rights in Muslim communities. By the end of the year, Van Gogh, the great-great-nephew of the famous painter, had been shot and stabbed to death by a Dutch Moroccan assailant while on his way to his office in Amsterdam. After the attack, the film’s writer, a former Muslim, was forced into hiding. In response to the backlash, mosques in Holland were torched, and in return, so were churches. A year later, after the film was shunned by European television channels and theaters, the Italian state broadcasters made the bold decision to air it, despite threats.
A photograph of a crucifix dunked in urine is probably the most infamous and continuously protested piece of artwork of our time. Since artist Andres Serrano first displayed it in 1987, “Piss Christ” has incited riots and prompted death threats every time it makes its way into an exhibit. On Palm Sunday in 2011, some 1,000 Catholic protesters in France stormed the town where it was displayed and a small group made it into the gallery and destroyed the piece with a hammer. The controversial photo continues to be displayed, despite many more incidents, including a vandalizing in Australia and a destruction of a show by neo-Nazis in Sweden. On Wednesday, after the attack on Charlie Hedbo, the Associated Press removed images of Piss Christ from its database, calling it and other deleted photos “deliberately provocative.”