Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Great Balls of Buddha




Police in Norwich are investigating this bronze sculpture entitled The Iconoclast by leading local artist Colin Self, currently on display at the city's Saint Giles Street Gallery. Originally facing into the road where it apparently upset a number of passers-by, it has been turned inwards after the cops called round. A spokeswoman for the police "hate crimes" unit commented,

There is no issue with the fact that the statue is on display within the gallery. However, there is an issue with such a piece of art being displayed prominently in a window frontage in full view of passers-by on a busy public street.

We have liaised with the management of the gallery in order to reach a solution which both upholds the principles of freedom of artistic expression but also prevents any offence being caused to any general member of the public or faith group.

So is the objection to the genitalia, or to the fact that they are appended to an image of Buddha?

This wouldn't be the first time that the authorities have stepped in to protect the supposed sensibilities of Buddhists. This summer, council officials in Durham objected to the naming of a restaurant "the Fat Buddha" on the basis that, in the deathlessly po-faced words of head of "cultural services" Tracey Ingle,

To use the name of a major religion's deity in your restaurant brand runs contrary to this city's reputation as a place of equality and respect for others' views and religious beliefs.

Needless to say, the restaurant's owner, Eddi Fung, was a Buddhist of Chinese descent, and the reaction from the Buddhist community to the name was far from irate. Said a spokesman from the Buddhist Society,

Buddhists regard the fat Buddha as lucky. To suggest this is offensive is to misunderstand the faith. Buddhists don't take offence at anything because to do so doesn't follow Buddhist teachings.

Quite so. A fat Buddha is a happy Buddha, after all. Ms Ingle might as well have objected on the grounds that promoting fat Buddhahood as a desirable state encouraged unhealthy eating. But even if Buddhists don't rise to the "taking offence" bait which seems to have become the main way in which religious groups assert themselves, is it right to become offended on their behalf? There's a difference, after all, between utilising an ancient image of prosperity, and superimposing an erect phallus on a bronze Buddha in order to make some sort of artistic statement. At first sight, it looks a like an adolescent prank, analagous to painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa.

If nothing else, the artist can be accused of going for a soft target. Imagine if this had been an image of Mohammed. There would have been deaths. A Christian response would have been less violent, but (if the Jerry Springer, the Opera controversy is anything to go by) still fairly vociferous and sustained. Hindus, too, have got into the protest business. A couple of years ago Royal Mail withdrew a Christmas stamp which depicted the Nativity from an Indian perspective after complaints from a pressure group calling itself the Hindu Forum, complaints which more thoughtful Hindus argued were absurd. By contrast, going after Buddha is still a relatively stress-free option. You just have local councils and the police to deal with.