Friday, August 29, 2008

Jesus Frogging Christ

Grass roots political action is not what it used to be. It seems like lately the only people protesting, or getting any attention for protesting, are conservatives in favor of repression, moralization and censorship. It’s a reversal, it seemed like the people who used to be rebellious and engaged in public actions were against imposed morals and values. What an exciting thing for a long established politician to turn his back on his party and become an “independent.” Unfortunately in America this means you are Joe Lieberman and have decided to be more conservative and status quo, not less. What an insult to the term “independent.”

Fred the Frog

Christians are amongst the most vocal and numerous of protestors for conservatism today. The Protestants [sic] are more about moralizing and are vocally against women’s reproductive rights for example. Catholics on the other hand, perhaps feeling they have no moral high ground to stand on, go the cultural angle. Although Evangelicals love themselves some good offensive dirty sacrilegious sex art. Recently Catholics have been against the film The Golden Compass, calling it anti-catholic. I don’t know about the film, but the book, and its author are expressly against Catholicism and organized religion. It was a minor curffuffle, but it would have been really great to hear the filmmakers say, “yes, it is, fuck you. Deal with it, we have a different opinion. Get over it. Move along.”

The latest is yet another tired art scandal, because all the other ones were so successful in the eyes of God, winning so many converts and saving so many souls. Religious opposition to art presumably comes from the First, Second and Third Commandments, “Thou shalt not have any god before me. Thou shalt not worship false idols or carve graven images.” And finally, the big one, “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.” This particular case reported by is a plague of Biblical proportions and it involves frogs, but in the form of a sculpture, not raining down from the sky along with locusts and blood/water.

Martin Kippenberger • From Fred the Frog • 1990 • of course none of the stories bother to tell you exact details like title medium and date

Pissing off Christians, particularly the kind prone to calling off work and making some signs out of yardsticks and poster paint, is as easy as being hypocritical on a Sunday. And who better than German artist Martin Kippenberger and his crucified frog, it’s eyes goggling and its tongue hanging out? Why just thinking about it, a sculpture on view in a museum in Italy, is a mockery to Christ and human dignity. What would be offensive to believers is that it is a graven image of Jesus Christ, a false idol, and it mocks him, ridicules the name of God. Well, sort of. It is really just a frog on a cross, it’s not like he has a beard and a crown of thorns. In a way, it mocks idolatry itself, poking fun at the idea that you are some how closer to the Trinity when you have a representation of him hanging in your house or around your neck. This is at the heart of Iconoclasm throughout history, groups of Christians fought over whether or not it is breaking the Laws of God to make a statue or painting of Jesus.

At one point the museum shrouded the frog in all the press coverage, attempting to "cover up" the piece in all the controversy it started.
People were still offended.

But, as in most cases like this, people are much more reactionary than having some sort of studied basis for action or attitude. Knowing there are some passages in the Bible that can be brought out later to justify the outrage if need be. The Passion of the frog has led to protests in the Italian city where it is on view and of course the Pope has condemned it. It’s hard to believe there was a time when that meant something, thank you very much Martin Luther, aha another German. [Although it was the Protestant Reformation that led to a famous period of Iconoclasm] Now Popes spend their days meaninglessly condemning things, lying about the effectiveness of condoms and blessing Ferraris. And recently sort of apologizing for all the sexual abuse. It is so ridiculously simplistic and easy. Artist: “OK, crucifixion, lets make fun of it.” Catholics: “Oh no, the symbol of my god is being mocked!@#$% time to flip out!” Artist: “that was easy.”

Like Ghandi before him, local politician Franz Pahl went on a hunger strike against this froggy atrocity taking place in his region. Then he fainted and was taken to the hospital whereupon he discontinued his act of heroic protestation. This is beautiful, doesn’t anyone realize that this actually makes the piece better and even further proves the point that organized religion leads to mass absurdity? It’s a little startling.

Fred the Frog Rings the Bell
Martin Kippenberger • Fred the Frog Rings the Bell • carved wood and steel nails• 1990 • Initialed, dated and editioned on frog's tongue:"MK90 7/7" • Zwirner & Wirth

Pahl has stated “This decision to keep the statue there is totally unacceptable […] It is a grave offense to our Catholic population” ( Are you fucking serious? You are really offended by this ridiculous frog? I mean come on, you have to be a fucking idiot to not get some sort of irony and playfulness out of the piece. Really, it is not some sort of serious attack on God. In fact, it is poking fun at those who’d take it seriously. Way to be completely and utterly complicit in a joke.

At this point, a piece like Kippenberger’s is not a direct attack or some sort of defiant gesture aimed at an all-too-powerful system, that would be a moot point. But some believers still cling fiercely to their beliefs and do very silly things in order hoping to prove their devotion. And politicians still cater to their demographics trying to secure votes. Therefore Fred the Frog, part of a series of works depicting the amphibian on the cross in wood and other media serves as a not just a stupid and hilarious sculpture, but as a catalyst. It is proof of stupidity. With all the things going on the world, and in your own personal life, why would a sculpture of a frog cause you to drop everything? Answer: people are easily offended, especially if it involves religion, and especially by art that doesn’t seem to be some sort of still life or black & white photograph. And it is easier to rile up people into making a showy demonstration of their beliefs rather than to actually live up to them. When agitating the common man just about anything can be leveraged for the desired effect. Forget that the frog doesn’t have any offensive genitals and isn’t doing anything lewd. Forget that it is from 18 years ago; it is mocking religion, and it is by a German and therefore must be stopped. So this is perfect tool to stir up the public on nationalist and religious grounds. Never mind that the Pope is German.

This sort of powerful symbolic thinking, “the world is in decline, our culture is sick, our morals are being degraded and this is exemplified by a mockery of Christ in our local museum,” is a strong argument that has a long history of use. Think of that embarrassment for anyone claiming to be Christian, Jesse Helms, and his underlying agendas in the late 80s. Or the often-cited Degenerate Art exhibition in Germany leading up to WWII. “Our culture is infected with Jews, Gypsies and Bolsheviks, that is why you are standing in a line with a bag of money hoping to afford a loaf of bread, and that same infection of culture is seen in these ‘artworks’” went the Nazi rhetoric. Now more than ever, it is evident that a strong image and a lucid mantra are all it takes to corral people in just about any desired direction.

Martin Kippenberger • Zuerst die Füße [First the Feet] • 1990 • Luhring Augustine

And this is why it is so troubling when controversy sprouts up like this. Maybe one instance isn’t that significant, but it adds up. And the trend today seems to be going towards a regression of cultural mores. Whenever this happens you have to wonder what the motivations for those involved are, what the agenda is. Sure there are always a number of true believers that are genuinely committed to the fight. But all-too-often their outrage is just used for another purpose.

Aside from the obvious troubling nature of censoring art for a religious and political agenda, this sort of banal scandal also encourages mediocre artists. For every brilliant frog on a cross there are about a thousand paintings of naked chicks hanging on crosses in a goth tattoo art gallery somewhere. What is interesting about this case is that Kippenberger is a well-established artist. Often it seems like artists you’ve never heard of are doing something with the cum and getting in trouble for it. And then the general public thinks that is what contemporary art is about.

By the way, thus far, the museum has not bowed to the pressure to remove it. “Alois Lageder, the museum’s president, said the decision to continue to display the statue was made to ‘safeguard the autonomy of art institutions’” ( Of course in the end, this is all backfiring on the opposition, revealing them for overacting to a harmless little frog and exposing countless new pairs of eyes to the wonder of the Kippenberger's art. Martin Kippenberger died in 1997, but not before making peace with the world, he also created Martin, into the Corner and Shame on You, 1989. Almost as if in anticipation the frog controversy?

1 comment:

Dayton said...

"Whenever this happens you have to wonder what the motivations for those involved are, what the agenda is."

Good point, and this particular inquiry should not just be applied to the spectrum of religious reactions, but also to the artists who court this brand of controversy.