Thomas Sutcliffe: No offence meant - but lots taken

The work in question was called God Is Great, a sculpture in which copies of the Bible, a Koran and a Talmud appear to be embedded in a plate of glass. Curiously, it looks as if whoever compiled the press release also felt it would "not be appropriate" accurately to describe the origin of the gallery's anxiety about this piece - since they've used a deliberately vague phrase to explain what the artist did to the books to achieve his effect. They had, it revealed, been "physically manipulated". So much less inflammatory than "chopped in half", isn't it?

Tate Britain's offences against plain English are neither here nor there. What's truly depressing about the incident is what it tells us about its attitude to art - and in particular about its belief in art as a useful way of thinking about serious issues. It was an "incredibly complex decision", a press spokesperson said, and I'm inclined to agree with them on that. How does one even begin to pick apart the tangled strands of illogic and cowardice that went into it? The press release alone raises a thousand questions, let alone the action it attempts to justify. But it's clear that the bottom line here is fear... and fear of one group of people in particular. I doubt very much that Stephen Deuchar, Tate Britain's director, and his advisers were worried about angry crowds of rabbis mobbing the front steps of the gallery or that they fretted even momentarily about the possibility that devout Christians would be incensed by Latham's sculpture. What I think the museum and its advisers were frightened of was extremist Muslims. After decades of being told that the purpose of art is to interrogate and challenge our prejudices, it seems some prejudices are too dangerous to challenge.

This particular knee has jerked before. In 2003, Tate Britain apologised to Muslims for the offence it might have caused by describing a bit of Victorian orientalism as a portrait of one of Mohamed's wives. Some zealous defender of the Ummah had noticed this and called on his co-religionists to express their righteous anger.

When the Tate did a bit more research, it discovered it probably wasn't Mohamed's wife at all, at which point, as the writer Kenan Malik pertinently pointed out, it apologised not to the general public for the inaccuracy of its labelling, but to Muslims, for a offence that had not actually been committed and that, in any case, involved a theological taboo that could have no universal application. I'm sure there are visitors to the Tate who find it awkward that the café is not a kosher establishment - but one assumes prawn sandwiches won't be banned on the same grounds. And, as Malik went on to ask, if they had discovered that the painting was of Mohammed's wife would that have resulted in its permanent exclusion from public display, regardless of its artistic or cultural significance to the gallery's non-Islamic visitors?

This latest decision seems to suggest that the answer is yes - or, at least, that the difference between post-7 July and pre-7 July is not as great as the gallery would like to imply. The removal of Latham's impeccably even-handed work (it privileges none of the great monotheistic religions over any other) confirms that, while Islam has no specific protection in the existing blasphemy legislation, its zealots have imposed a de facto prohibition that is far more effective in its operations than that rightly dilapidated law.

Even more worrying is the fact that Tate Britain appears to concede to the true believers the right to decide what is blasphemous and what is not. "We didn't want John Latham's work to be misrepresented and given a political dimension he didn't intend," it explained in another statement. That is dizzying in its perversity and dishonesty. It tries to suggest that concern for the work's integrity motivated the decision - but instead of defending it against bigoted misrepresentation, it capitulates, and so in effect endorses the idea that it is culpable. Tate Britain surrendered to irrationality in this affair, and in doing so it insulted everyone - Muslims, artists and secular art-lovers. Who knows, perhaps it will count that as a multicultural success.

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