Before I begin this week’s strident indictment of whatever and stuff, I think I should establish my expertise in the general subject matter, which is art. I’m not one of those Philistines who says, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” The arts are my consuming passion, and I spend every free moment immersed in the classics. My obsessive love for the works of C.M. Coolidge, for example, has become my raison d’être; I can name – from memory – every breed of dog that sits at that poker table. And after years of scouring every tent-canopy sale in every Shopko parking lot within 500 miles, my personal art collection now boasts the most extensive assemblage of American Indian wolf tapestries, Robert Kinkaid knock-offs, and framed Dale Earnhardt memorial lithographs anywhere.
I think I’ve made my point.
While I, like you, had my life changed forever when Christo wrapped Berlin’s Reichstag building in polypropylene fabric, I find that most modern art is not nearly that lucid and relevant. Case in point: An exhibit opening Wednesday in Washington D.C.; it is part of something called “International Blasphemy Day.” The idea is that artists and so-called “free-speech advocates” around the globe will stage exhibitions that mock and criticize all things religious. The goal is to somehow promote freedom of expression through all the condemnation and ridicule.
The work of painter Dana Ellyn will be featured at the D.C. observance. In a Religion News Service article about Blasphemy Day, Ellyn told reporter Leanne Larmondin, “My point is not to offend, but I realize it can offend, because religion is such a polarizing topic.” That’s an interesting statement, especially when we consider some of her work.
I give you Dana Ellyn’s “Silly Rabbit, Myths Are for Kids.” Jesus Christ, God the Son, is pictured dressed in an Easter Bunny costume with an egg beneath his chair. A small girl is laughing at him.
“Bottled at the Source” is evidently supposed to mimic a booze label. “Divine Wine” is the name of the product, and the Savior of all mankind is shown on the cross; angels float nearby, holding out empty bottles to be filled by the streams of blood that are spouting from His pierced side and hand.
In “Jesus Performs at Young Darwin’s Birthday Party,” the Lord of the Universe is in a clown suit levitating a few inches off the floor, dancing on a cloud for the young evolutionist’s amusement.
But Ellyn’s magnum opus is “Jesus Does His Nails.” Christ is seated, with His crucifixion spikes still protruding. He is dabbing nail polish on the head of the nail that has been driven through His left hand.
I emailed some questions and observations to Dana Ellyn, but she didn’t respond. I understand, of course. If anyone knows how time-consuming it is to conceive predictable, hackneyed, sophomoric puns, it’s me. And I only have to type mine; she, on the other hand, has got to get one of those palette thingies, cover it with color puddles, put on a smock and beret, and then paint hers. So, I’ll just include a few of those questions here:
(See update after the column. Dana stated she emailed a response promising to answer my questions once she received my email. Though I didn’t receive it before posting the article, I have no reason to disbelieve her. A more charitable and gracious characterization would have been, “Dana Ellyn has yet to respond to my questions.” - Ed.)
1. The article states, “Artist Dana Ellyn says her ‘Blasphemy’ paintings are a tongue-in-cheek expression of her lack of belief in God and religion.” Isn’t your artwork actually an expression of your hostility toward religion rather than your lack of religious belief?
2. The date of Blasphemy Day was specifically chosen to commemorate a Danish newspaper’s publication in 2005 of cartoons that were unfavorable toward Islam and Muhammad. Muslims around the world rioted. Yet I notice that you, like virtually all atheist artists I have encountered, express your disdain for religion by blaspheming Jesus almost exclusively. I’ve looked at all your paintings, but nothing in your work is aimed at Islam. Why do you and so many of your anti-religion colleagues give Islam a “free pass” but roast Christ mercilessly? You’re afraid of Muslim reprisals, of course, and that’s just good sense. But clearly you’re holding yourself out as an iconoclast, and your bold iconoclastic principles evaporate before you cross the threshold of the Mosque.
3. Artists want to be seen as edgy rebels who do provocative work. Yet the cost for that kind of street cred is public outrage, and you all invariably protest when subjected to such backlash. Conversely, without the public outrage and backlash, you’ll never be seen as an edgy rebel who does provocative work. Aren’t you caught in a vicious cycle?
Anyhoo, friends, I think I’ll pass on International Blasphemy Day and just spend September 30th loving the Lord Jesus instead. I pray you’ll join me. To be honest, I’m really not much of an art connoisseur. The way I see it, art died with Bob Ross anyway. But as far as Jesus is concerned, “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.”
UPDATE: Dana Ellyn responds (sort of):
Thank you for your posting. I did receive your email yesterday with all of your questions. And I did respond with the following email 10 minutes after I received your note (I initially requested the interview mid-afternoon on September 27. I received this response from Dana almost a full day after sending my initial inquiry to her. Newspaper columnists have deadlines, Ma’am. I’ll amend the post to reflect accordingly, however. - Ed.) :
Thank you very much for your email. I can not tell you how much I appreciate your taking the time to write – and for the thoughtful nature of your questions. I welcome the opportunity to answer every question you have posed. As of yet, I haven’t responded to any of the 100 or so comments that are posted to the original article on the Religion News Service site. So thank you for compiling all of the issues/questions that have been raised and giving me a forum to answer.
I will sit down tonight and/or tomorrow and respond. I just wanted to get back to you quickly to let you know that I will be responding since it will take me a bit of time to answer your questions thoroughly.
I spent several hours last night and this morning writing up very in depth answers to your questions – because I was so pleased at your willingness to discuss and have an open and honest dialogue. I am sorry to see that you already posted this article and didn’t wait for my response – nor did you acknowledge my honest intentions to respond. In fact, you say that I didn’t respond and go on with your continued assumptions and accusations claiming to know who I am and all that I stand for. (Again, at post time on Monday, I had waited what in journalism circles is considered a generous amount of time for a response. When I didn’t receive one, I gave a truthful, accurate account of the situation as it stood. You very well may have sent me a response “within 10 minutes,” but I didn’t receive it. While I won’t apologize for the nature of the bid’ness, I do acknowledge that a more charitable and gracious characterization would have been, “Dana Ellyn has yet to respond to my questions.” - Ed.)
In brief, to treat this very serious topic of religion via a few short quotes from me and a handful of paintings I have created that are a very small subset of my entire body of work does not do either side of the conversation justice. (I maintain that the “handful of paintings” I cited are thematically consistent with all your other works which address the same subject matter. If you’ve done some other paintings which portray Jesus Christ in anything other than an insulting and, in my view, blasphemous manner, I’d love to see them. Once I do, I will cheerfully withdraw my critical comments. - Ed.)
And as I responded to each and every one of your questions last night, I realized that if I was too brief it left much of my message up for too much potential misinterpretation. (Hmmm. Well, I encourage you to go ahead and send your responses to me anyway. I won’t misinterpret them. I have an Adderall prescription. Logically speaking, it seems that the potential for misinterpretation is heighted, rather than mitigated, by withholding the clarifying responses you wrote. I’m just sayin’… -Ed.) To go to the necessary depth would mean me spending the majority of my time focusing on this topic and this topic alone. My atheist/agnostic views are not what define me or my art on the whole. (Agreed, and I didn’t state otherwise. The column, however, is devoted to your involvement in International Blasphemy Day, so naturally, my questions and my column will focus on that. – Ed.)
Now I see from your posting here that you are not as open to discussion as I had hoped from your email. (Ahem. Talk about “assumptions and accusations claiming to know who I am and all that I stand for”! I’m as open as you please, but do as you see fit. – Ed.)
I do not ‘disdain’ religion (as you suggested in your email question). (Uh, come on, Dana. I mean, seriously. That’s an almost laughably disingenuous statement. -Ed.) I think religion has played a vital role in the course of human history. I do not practice any religion or believe in any god and I don’t have anything against those who do. To each his own. I would never tell someone “you are wrong to believe in god” or “you should not believe in god” or “you should stop believing in god”. But those questions are always directed to me in the reverse. (Always? By whom? - Ed.) I do have the right to say “I disagree with you” and you can tell me the same in return. (You certainly do, Dana. Every right. Nothing I have written to you or about this matter conflicts with that. But the original concern remains unanswered by you: My perception is that you, like the overwhelming majority of atheist artists, musicians, commentators, and writers I encounter, focus inordinately on mocking Christ, yet seemingly leave Islam and Muhammad alone for the most part. I again encourage you to email the responses you wrote and set me straight. – Ed.)
I wish you all well.