Lars Vilks, the Swedish artist whose drawing of the Prophet Mohammed as a dog in the Swedish newspaper Nerikes Allehanda earlier this year sparked protests that echoed the Danish cartoon controversy of 2006, said last month that he is now writing a musical about Islam. This will include characters based on the Swedish Prime Minister, President Ahmadinejad of Iran and Al Qaeda. “We haven’t yet decided if Mohammed will be portrayed by one or several people,” Vilks told Swedish reporters. “We will also have an elegy by the ‘choir of the offended’. It is part of the rules to be able to criticise religion and politics. It is nothing personal and I do not have it in for anyone.” We asked artist Grayson Perry whether artists should be free to tackle Islam in their work.
Awell-known London department store has asked me to design a fabric—but one topic has raised its head in the planning meetings: religion. The design team has asked me not to address the subject in my work for them. I never thought in my lifetime religion would be such a hot topic again. But it’s not religion per se, it’s fundamentalism—and specifically Islamic fundamentalism.
If you look at stories that have been in the news in the last few years such as the assassination of Theo Van Gogh [the Dutch film- maker who made a film about Islamic culture and was shot dead in Amsterdam in 2004] and the Danish cartoon episode, the use of Islamic imagery in both cases provoked furious responses.
It’s a minefield because of Islam’s attitude to the image of the prophet and the Koran; I’m just not aware of what the limit is and don’t know how elastic Islam’s use of imagery is, with even seemingly innocuous illustrations. I shy away from even fairly mundane references to Islam. Every time I might be tempted to draw a mosque on one of my map pieces, I think, “Is this dodgy?”. I resent the fact that I have to think twice about whether it’s offensive. It’s a mixture of ignorance and fear. I’m a fan of religion, know Christian myths and can play with those. But I aim to make work about when belief gets muddled up with fact and I think Islam makes that confusion just as often.
It feels unfair because I regularly use Christian imagery. A few touchy evangelists may well take offence but I like vicars on the whole. I had great fun at a recent talk in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, discussing transgender issues. Can you imagine how that would go down in a mosque?
When you’re working in traditional crafts, you’re dealing with very basic vocabularies. In order to convey messages and ideas, I reach for archetypal symbols, but with Islam, I wonder what I can use to represent those parts of that world. It’s not to say, however, that I’ve not touched upon the subject. My tapestry Vote Alan Measles for God [Alan Measles is Perry’s teddy bear] is based on Afghan war rugs and refers to the war on terror. It’s a combination of middle-eastern weaving styles and war imagery.
But I wouldn’t want this one subject to become a defining issue for me. People sometimes say to me: “You’re the artist who makes those paedophile pots, aren’t you?” to which I reply: “Which pot do you mean?” If I were to use Islam in my work often, it would inevitably define me as an artist, but I do, however, want to make work that’s slightly charged which is important. My work’s based on the subject matter making it unique, it’s a central plank of my practice—otherwise I’m just a pot-maker.
A combination of political correctness and fear comes into play in the UK. The “Jerry Springer: the Opera” controversy is a case in point [nine regional UK theatres scheduled to host the musical last year pulled out after Christian demonstrators threatened to picket the venues] along with the closure in 2004 of the play “Behzti” in Birmingham [following protests from the Sikh community]. This “censorship” is based on fear, not sensitivities towards ethnic and religious minorities. It’s all about closing down debate. I don’t deliberately want to offend anybody but the crux of the matter is the threat of violence. It’s more about a fear of violence and not about any particular religion. People don’t actually admit to being frightened very often and religious people can be extreme people. Personally, I don’t want to see a world run by people who consider God their “invisible friend” and make decisions or laws based on their religious beliefs which then affect everyone.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '“Censorship is based on fear, not sensitivities towards ethnic minorities”'