Jesus, MLK, and How to Close One’s Mind

Twice in the past week I’ve come upon some artwork that some people have considered controversial or disturbing.

First there was the story on NPR about the “homeless Jesus statue”. A Canadian artist created a statue of a man, huddled under a blanket on a public bench. Upon closer inspection he is identified—primarily by the bloody holes in his feet—as Christ. In a North Carolina town where the statue sits in front of the church that purchased it, the article states “some loved it; some didn’t.” That’s a remark that can be said about any piece, but it seems the reasoning behind those responses was less about art appreciation and more about disturbing one’s perception of iconic figures or possibly disrupting the cleanliness of their town.

The second instance was my recent attendance to the current Penumbra Theatre production of The Mountaintop by Katori Hall. It seems that Ms. Hall’s play has received some mixed reactions since it premiered in London in 2009, and this production has seen some of that itself. The play, in part, reveals a very human and even flawed rendition of Martin Luther King, Jr. with which some audience members have taken umbrage. From what I learned, during their run in a Charlotte, NC numerous audience members left part-way through the play, and often in a not-so-quiet manner. It seems to some the play offended their senses by making MLK less than perfect and thereby tarnishing the image of their idol.

Is it just a North Carolina thing? Hmmm…I’ve been there a few times. It’s a lovely state, with some lovely people. Some backwards people, too. Somehow I doubt NC is alone, and I doubt these things reflect the whole state anyway.

In both instances though the artwork has made people uncomfortable. It’s challenged their perceptions of the world, or of these men, as they know them or as they want them to be. By altering, even ever so slightly, these two men, it seems to have…what? Called everything in to question and thereby shaken up their world to such a degree that the only response is to flee or contact the proper authorities?

I love artwork that’s challenge—that presents an image or a concept or a tale that challenges the norm and questions the moral or ethical compasses in the room. And these two instances are tame by many comparisons. You want controversial visual art? Homeless Jesus has nothing on Serrano’s Piss Christ.

Apologies: I’m hard pressed to come up with a  controversial play that includes Jesus, MLK or a modern day prophet at the moment. 

I’m disappointed to hear that people were disturbed by these things. (I’m actually more disturbed that some people in the wealthy neighborhood were bothered by what they thought was a real homeless person, but that’s another issue.) In many ways, isn’t being disturbed (or moved) the thing that art is supposed to do? Shed light on topics, set up a mirror for us and make us think? Evoke a response.

Some people have used that element—evoking an emotional response—as what differentiates it from craft.

MLK was human and flawed, but he was passionate about social justice and strived to do something about inequalities. Who’s picked up the baton he dropped?

I’m sure for some the meaning or messages we could see in the homeless depiction of Christ were lost. Homeless as in he has no place in our homes, as well as that adage “whatever you do to the least of my brothers….”

I think this is just what art is supposed to do. What’s being presented is not necessarily presented as truth or ideal or even just. But whether people embrace it, applaud it on their feet or walk out in a huff, it seems to me there must be something there.

And by walking away, from either of these pieces, those witnesses gave up the opportunity to learn something new, and to expand their (closed) mind a bit further. 

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