By the day after Christmas, five people had asked me what happened to Kurt Geissel's work at Roq la Rue. The piece--a Koran with a Buddha shape carved into it (a reference to the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban) and bearing the inscription vita brevis, ars lunga, God is Sorry--was removed after the opening of Gods and Monsters, an irreverent look at religion (Morticia as Venus, Frankenstein as Christ, etc.).
Here's what I discovered.
Researching a recent article about how art that has shocked the rest of the country hasn't raised an eyebrow in Seattle, Seattle Post-Intelligencer art critic Regina Hackett visited Roq la Rue and was particularly taken with Geissel's piece. ("For all the excesses committed in God's name," she told me, "a little sorrow is welcome.") She decided not to include it in her article, largely because she thought it irresponsible to feature such a work--and she told Roq la Rue owner Kirsten Anderson so. "I was afraid to publicize it, because Kirsten sits there alone in the gallery," Hackett said. "It's a particular kind of flag to a tiny group of people." Anderson, after talking to a lot of people and thinking it over, asked Geissel to remove the work--which he did, albeit unhappily.
"I don't blame her," Geissel told me. "But if you're afraid to show work because of what some nitwits have done, then the nitwits have too much power."
What are we to make of this controversy?
On the one hand, Geissel's piece is a mutilated Koran, which (like bread and wine in Catholic Communion) is not considered a symbol of holiness by Muslims, but holiness itself. Anderson knew what Geissel had in mind before he made it, but, she said, "An actual defaced Koran is offensive to all Muslims--even a photograph of it would have been different."
On the other hand, the art world (correctly) went to the wall to defend Andres Serrano's photograph of a cross floating in his own urine, which offended devout Catholics. So why is it somehow all right to offend Catholics and not Muslims? It's a question of relative fear, of the (perceived or real) difference between facing an angry Catholic activist and an angry Muslim one. "Christians can take it," Anderson said.
Anderson was clearly not happy with having to make such a choice. "This was not a rash decision," she said. "Roq la Rue can support a certain amount of this kind of thing, but sometimes ideology goes out the window."