Jesus on a Dart Board at Rutgers: The Double-Edged Sword of Free Speech
In 1987, Andres Serrano won an award for his photograph titled “Piss Christ.” The infamous photo of a crucifix submerged in Serrano’s urine outraged conservative Christians. Throwing fuel on the fire of conservative anger, it was uncovered that the National Endowment for the Arts had doled out a couple of large grants to Andres Serrano. Although only twelve years old at the time, I vividly remember the uproar. My parents, the adults in my church, and teachers in my Christian school fumed at the sacrilegious art. The overwhelming pushback from conservatives resulted in Serrano losing grant money, receiving death threats, and having his work vandalized.
As an adult, I sadly shake my head and roll my eyes at Andres Serrano and other artists who traffic in the shock market. For the record, I’m not a fan (to put it lightly) of my tax dollars propping up non-transcendent art; specifically if that art is profane and/or blatantly sacrilegious for the sake of being, well, childishly sacrilegious. On the other hand, vandalism and death threats are beyond the pale, and deserve to be shouted down and condemned. My main concern, however, is the impulse to become so offended as to create the desire to subjugate another’s freedom of expression to the mob.
In light of the current onslaught of the leftist suppression of free speech, particularly the suppression of conservatives’ free speech and thought, I would hope that conservatives would look back on past tactics and repent. Unfortunately, conservatives continue to exhibit a penchant for becoming as easily offended as our new liberal overlords. The recent controversy at Rutgers University caused by an art piece depicting a statue of Jesus fastened to a dart board is a case and point.
Last month, an art installation at Rutgers included a dart board that held a tiny statue of Jesus pierced with four darts. Those offended did what the offended in the twenty-first century do – they took their cause to social media. The outcry was swift, fierce, and caused school officials to remove the piece, titled “Vitruvian Man,” from its prominent position in the gallery and place it in less visible glass case. Not long after moving “Vitruvian Man,” the university removed the piece from the exhibit altogether.
A part of me smugly smirks at the comeuppance received by the obnoxiously immature and sacrilegious artist. A larger part of me, however, shudders at the continued back and forth of the grievance class. While not completely to blame for the rise of the intolerant tolerance of leftists, it’s little wonder that conservatives are being shunted out of the public square since we provided the leftists with the playbook on how to silence critics.
Rutgers is a public university, and, as such, shouldn’t be in the business of censoring art students. Displaying “Vitruvian Man” doesn’t take away my right to be offended. And, if I came across the piece in a gallery, I would be very offended. But I would also never ask for the piece to be removed. Censoring expression that I find offensive is a bad precedent. When the winds change—and the winds are quickly changing—what’s to stop Andres Serrano, the student artist behind “Vitruvian Man,” and other progressives from demanding that I not be allowed to bow my head in prayer over my food while in public?
Risking retribution from leftists by suppressing the artistic or even inartistic expressions from those we disagree with serves little to no purpose to begin with. Truth doesn’t need protection; truth simply needs to be spoken. The great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon famously quipped, “Let the lion loose and the lion will defend itself.”
If we believe that we have the truth, then silly, pretentious, and sacrilegious expressions of art pose zero threat to our worldview. Publicly expressing our offense for the sake of silencing our opposition only serves to communicate our fear. We see this fear manifest in the oppressive tactics of leftists as they attempt to silence conservative voices across the nation. Silencing critics expresses a position of weakness. Leftist have to suppress the truth, because the truth is an actual threat to their agenda.
Yes, “Vitruvian Man” is offensive, sacrilegious, and immature. But the art piece produced by a juvenile Rutgers University student is less than a fly on the mane of a lion. It poses no threat to the truth. With that in mind, there was no reason for outraged conservatives to demand its removal. The next time a leftist says something offensive or creates a sacrilegious work of art with the intention of getting under the skin of conservatives, a better tactic would be to skillfully engage the ideas presented and leave the offended outrage at home. Leftists are the ones who should fear the truth; let’s leave the suppression of speech to the fearful.