Religion and Art in the Toilet

Christopher Cole is a Los Angeles writer.

The Left has responded predictably to Newsweek’s retracted story about U.S. interrogators flushing a Koran down a toilet at Guantanamo Bay and the subsequent revelations of the Islamic holy book being treated in a way Muslims find sacrilegious (including an incident in which a Koran was apparently splashed with urine). Liberals, progressives and assorted antiwar activists have claimed that the incidents are proof of anti-Muslim bigotry and religious right-wing intolerance permeating the Bush administration and its war on terrorism.

The controversy takes me back to 1989 and a particular skirmish in our ongoing culture wars that itself seems to have been flushed down the memory hole. Here’s a recap of the commotion that erupted when the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts gave money to avant-garde artist Andres Serrano for a piece in which a crucifix was submerged in urine. Taxpayer money at the same time flowed to performance artist John Fleck, whose masterpiece was made up of an “altar” toilet with a picture of Jesus on its lid.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 26, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 26, 2005 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 3 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Religion and art -- A June 19 Opinion article said performance artist John Fleck received taxpayer money for a piece featuring a toilet with a picture of Jesus on its lid. The National Endowment for the Arts denied Fleck funding in 1990, and the Supreme Court upheld its decision in 1998.

Anger erupted immediately from right-wing Christians who had the intolerance to suggest that they should not be forced to pay for the desecration of their holiest symbols.


Riding to the rescue were a host of individuals and organizations -- then-NEA Chairwoman Jane Alexander, the ACLU and not just a few Democratic senators and House members. I know about this because I was there. In 1989, I ran the Los Angeles chapter of the leftist organization Refuse and Resist and, in coalition with the ACLU, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Highways Performance Space, I helped organize a series of demonstrations across L.A. to defend the right of Serrano and Fleck to desecrate holy symbols at taxpayer expense.

Of course, the people we called right-wing extremists in Congress fought us, passing a law that allowed the NEA to withhold money from art that insults “the American people’s diverse faith and values.” That law was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1998, but in a blistering dissent, Justice David Souter argued that denying public money to sacrilegious art amounted to “viewpoint discrimination” that violated “the very foundation of the 1st Amendment.”

One could easily interpret Souter’s opinion as implying that the very existence of our constitutional freedoms depends on the right of an oddball artist to desecrate a crucifix at taxpayer expense.

Sixteen years ago, when the “Piss Christ” controversy broke, I would have echoed Souter’s comments. By 1998, however, I had changed my opinion (I like to think that I matured to a point where I could understand that conservatives were no less automatically wrong than liberals were automatically right).

Which brings us to the fact that many of the same liberals who supported Serrano and Fleck are now up in arms about the alleged mistreatment of a Koran at Guantanamo Bay. I find the position of my former ideological allies baffling.

If it’s true that some U.S. personnel were disrespectful of the Koran, to what extent did the left’s rigid defense of Serrano and Fleck influence their actions? Many of our troops were children or preteens during the Serrano controversy. If a young person is told that desecrating a holy symbol is a positive act that not only celebrates but actually safeguards our constitutional freedoms, isn’t it likely that this young person, once grown up, might have no problem desecrating a religious symbol, especially if that desecration is carried out in the name of a greater good, like national security?


Sixteen years ago, social conservatives argued that submerging a crucifix in urine was a base act that Americans should not be forced to support. They warned that rewarding this debasement would lead to an erosion of respect in American society for our “diverse faith and values.”

As someone who ridiculed that argument at the time, I now feel obligated to admit that I was wrong. Any of my old allies care to join me?