Executive Director’s Letter
September 18, 2012
Freedom of expression, politics, hate and art. Recent violence in the Middle East is said to have been ignited by a movie trailer for “The Innocence of Muslims.” It might have been called “The Innocence of Actors” as it appears those involved on screen were duped in this piece of intentionally provocative trash and then had many of their lines over-dubbed with blasphemies against the Prophet Mohamed. None of these performers got rich or even participated on philosophical grounds, but that’s a conversation for another day.
What interests me now are the consequences of freedom of expression, a genie once out of the bottle is impossible to recapture. It is why the makers of the trailer are not being prosecuted, thrown in jail, or stoned as some would like.
If you have seen it, it is a stretch to call it art. Nonetheless, it is an artistic vehicle that was intended to agitate the Muslim world. Having done so, it was then co-opted by some leaders to further fan the flames of anti-Western hatred and resulted in the death of four truly innocent Americans. But let’s not forget that loftier work has also faced the same backlash. Salman Rushdie was in hiding for years after the publication of Satanic Verses and the 1989 declaration of a fatwa against him by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomein.
In his excellent opinion piece in last Sunday’s Washington Post. Fouad Ajami contextualizes Muslm reaction. “Freedom of speech, granting license and protection to the irreverent, is cherished, protected and canonical in the Western tradition. Now Muslims who quarrel with offensive art are using their newfound freedoms to lash out against it.”
In the meantime, such freedom of expression uses art to unify movements, political positions, and communities—sometimes for better and other times for worse. After the shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theatre, coverage of the suspect included an NPR story about Skin Head rock-and-roll noting that the music creates a sense of community and offers like-minded folks a place and reason to gather and reinforce their world views.
And it’s not just violence; art can be used as a way to aggressively thumb our noses at the prevailing power structure. What is considered “liberal” art has caused continued scrutiny of government funders such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities. Such artistic challenges have helped expand our thinking (or at least create a dialogue about) the nature of art.
Then again, in Selma, Alabama a monument to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forest is being restored and expanded following the recent theft of its bust. Not only does it celebrate his dubious leadership during the Civil War, but also his role as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. This is Selma, where blood was shed to win voting and other rights for African Americans.
Art isn’t always political, but it does have a political context and a powerful way to communicate. If we value this and our right to expression, how do we feel about You Tube being shut down in Pakistan? And right here in the Baltimore area, are we prepared to think about how art and expression can both unify and divide us?
After all this heady thinking, I hope you will take a look at the list of upcoming events below. This fall we are seeing an abundance of opportunities to experience art and culture.