Venice: Art as An Act of Tolerance or a Cheap Publicity Stunt

VenicePolice in Venice closed down a mosque wrapped inside a  disused church that was billed as an art exhibit on the grounds that it was really just a crowded place of worship that needed proper permits.

The Mosque Inside a Church: Ars Gratia Artis?

The closure probably met the goals of the Swiss-born artist from Iceland, Christoph Buchel, who set it up at the Venice Biennale, which is a gigantic festival of contemporary art going on now. He wanted publicity. The Icelandic Art Center, sponsor of the mosque exhibit, said the purpose of the installation (called, appropriately, “The Mosque”) was:

  “To draw attention to the political institutionalization of segregation and prejudice in society, and to catalyze reflection upon the conflicts that arise from the sorts of governmental policies on immigration that lie at the heart of global ethnic and religious conflicts today.”

In short, art as a newspaper editorial. Here’s is a description for something Bucher proposed for an exhibit in Israel:

“Give Peace a chance. Project proposal, Herzliya Biennale, 2010. Live in-vitro-fertilization of a Palestinian human ovum and Israeli semen. The zygote will be inserted into the uterus of an American surrogate mother. The participants are citizens of the respective countries and act by free will. If the immaculate conception process fails initially, it will be repeated until successful.”


Anyway, art can have more than one meaning, otherwise it’s just a political tract. And what one thing means, say, in Iceland may have a totally different significance in the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East. For historical reasons,  there are no shortage of mosques wrapped inside churches or churches wrapped in mosques throughout the region.

Just off the top of my head: Santa Sophia, the giant basilica of the Emperor Constantine converted into a mosque by Ottoman conquerors and then into a museum by modern Turkey; the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, once a church but changed into a mosque by Arab subjugators of Syria; the large Byzantine churches in the Palestinian towns of Nablus and Gaza, both converted into mosques after the Medieval Arab conquests; the cathedral in Sevilla, once a mosque, and the grand mosque of Cordoba, both made into churches by Ferdinand and Isabella during the Christian Reconquest of Spain.

These conversions were not symbols of tolerance but of triumph. They represent the victory of one True Faith over another. The Roman Catholic church didn’t plop cathedrals and basilicas atop ancient temples for convenience sake; it was to put the pagan past in the past. And not for nothing are fundamentalist Jewish groups in Jerusalem trying to evict Muslims from the al-Aqsa Mosque complex, original site of the ancient Jewish temples. So a mosque planted inside a church in Venice might be seen as something other than a platform to argue immigration.

Conversation on subjects like this might well be worth having within the context of the global battle over religious tolerance, of which the construction of mosques and churches are a part, not only in Europe but also the Middle East. In Bucher’s homeland of Switzerland, it is impossible to attach a minaret to a mosque. In Egypt, police stand by as mobs assault Christians trying to build or even repair churches.

 Whether a walk-by exhibit in Venice is a good place for to take up these issues, that’s hard to say– though in the age of Internet, tempests in tea cup near Harry’s Bar can turn into continental storms.

It was wrong for the Venetians to shut down the mosque. It had quickly became not an exhibit but a place of prayer by local Muslim residents and among the reasons given for the closure was “public safety–” another sign of the times. The building itself, Santa Maria dell’Abbazia della Misericordia, was no longer used as a church, having been emptied years ago in response to the post-World War II shrinking of Venice’s population. Not a few such churches are employed for all sorts of things in the city, usually rentable for commercial meeting halls. Convents have been transformed into hotels.

There was something self-congratulatory about the rationale behind The Mosque installation: The artist and Iceland are enlightened; Venetians, stupid and racist. An Icelandic politician verbally thumped his chest and said:  “The happening in Venice is a kind of touchstone of tolerance. Something seems to be lacking there. So the task is to discuss ways of opening our eyes, widening our horizons, and crawling out of the pits of bigotry.”

The Icelandic organizers also declared contemporary art as de facto advocacy. Maybe I should frame my Washington Post op-ed page and put it on eBay.

The NYTimes reports.

Here’s a critique from an art website.

This is a short about a Syrian exhibit that either was or was not censored.

Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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