Thursday, October 25, 2007

Queering the Last Supper

Folsom Street Fair’s Leather Last Supper poster

A poster of Jesus and his disciples as “half-naked homosexual sadomasochists” sparked controversy recently at the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco.

Under pressure from a media blitz orchestrated by Christian conservatives, Miller Brewing Co. asked to remove its logo from the poster (pictured above). U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was among those defending the image.

I was all set to issue a major news release promoting this latest addition to the global boom in queer Christ art. Right-wing Christians don’t own the copyright on Jesus! It’s important to create new images of God based on the experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people.

However, the image itself made me stop and think.

I certainly endorse freedom of speech and gay culture photographer Fred Alert’s right to make the Leather Last Supper. But the image raises questions that go far beyond whether it’s OK for Jesus to be gay. One purpose of art is to inspire dialogue, and the Leather Last Supper can be a springboard for discussion about what it means to be queer and spiritual. I hope to hear comments from others on the following two questions:

1) Is it good theology?

I like seeing the disciples as contemporary leather folk. Of course, it’s not historically accurate, but it is true to the spirit of Jesus’ ministry. He welcomed everyone. During his lifetime Jesus was often criticized for eating with prostitutes and other outcasts, and some of these “sinners” became his disciples. The Leather Last Supper stands in the tradition of communion as a heavenly “love feast” where all are welcome.

What bothers me most about the leather Last Supper is that, as the Concerned Women for America put it, “The bread and wine representing Christ’s broken body and lifegiving blood are replaced with sadomasochistic sex toys.” In my view, Jesus was God-made-flesh, a total affirmation of the human body, sexuality included. But sex toys seem like a step away from the body, like inserting an artificial device between the direct contact of flesh on flesh. In the sacrifice commemorated by the Last Supper, Christ offered his own body, not a mechanical substitute. Even many queer Christians are offended by images like this.

The leather community and the GLBT community are two distinct categories with significant overlap. A press release from the Folsom Street Fair says that the image was not intended to be “pro-religion” or “anti-religion, adding that “many of the people in the leather and fetish communities are spiritual and that this poster image is a way of expressing that side of the community’s interests and beliefs.”

2) Is it good art?

I see the need for a wealth of queer spiritual images, good and bad, as we try to develop new images and set standards for them. A few people have criticized me for not having high enough standards in my book Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More. So be it. I do try to promote queer Christian images overall in my book, blog and website There aren’t enough spiritual images that speak to GLBT people, and I want to encourage artists to create more of them.

However, I also support the development of our own standards rooted in our own experience. For example, Australian gay theologian Rollan McCleary does pioneering work on setting criteria for queer spiritual art. On his blog he explores questions such as: “Where and when might there be a case for protesting that a line has been crossed and that a given production might reasonably be considered ‘offensive’ to people or, rather more importantly, ‘blasphemous’ by nature?”

I see a difference between the Folsom Street Fair poster and the images in my book Art That Dares. The book does include a photo of a traditional-looking Jesus being adored by queer leather folk, which is part of the Ecce Homo series by Swedish photographer Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin. Like the Folsom Street Fair poster, Ohlson Wallin’s photos use queer models to recreate historic masterpieces of Christ’s life. She even did her own version of the Last Supper using drag queens as models (pictured below), but maintaining the traditional bread and wine.

Last Supper by Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin

The meaning of an image is shaped by the artist’s intent and the context in which it is shown. Ohlson Wallin got angry when some Christians said AIDS was God’s punishment, so she created her drag queen Last Supper for a gay pride art exhibit. In contrast, the Leather Last Supper is a poster used to sell a leather festival and its sponsors such as Miller beer. I question whether it is ever appropriate to use Christ’s image for secular sales.

Some defended the Folsom Street Fair poster by pointing out that there are many other Last Supper parodies, featuring figures from McDonald’s to the Simpsons, from Sesame Street to Star Wars. A quick look at these suggests that they were done as artistic statements, not as advertisements. To me this surprising jumble of images suggests that queers aren’t the only ones struggling to reconcile spirituality with contemporary life.

I thank the creators of the Leather Last Supper for providing a focus for discussion and an image of how Jesus welcomes everyone, even those on the margins.


JMP said...

Thanks for the poster post. :)

Rollan McCleary said...

I am glad to see there can be this grappling with these problems of a borderlines spiritual art. Only through a degree of disputation can various new values and standards emerge

Though I don't personally like the Olsson Last Supper I think the difference with the Folsom Street Ad (apart from the fact that as you indicate the latter is purely commercial - an important point) is that it does intend differently. There is a sort of aura of mystery/mystique through even the setting and colour that the other doesn't have.

The main mistake of the Olsson is that it unnecessarily in the interests of inclusiveness appears to hint that Jesus is himself a drag queen. However, though that's a message viewers and theologians can critically contest, by contrast the Folsom ad doesn't, it seems to me, really have a message and invite dialogue. It's more like one of those moments of totally tasteless TV "satire" such as they put on in UK or Oz if not the US, a riot or chaos rather than a significant message. Which is in line with the fact it merely wishes to draw attention to itself for shock and advertising purposes, not to make us think.

Anonymous said...

Freedom of speech, hello!? I'm a deeply spiritual person but I also believe in our right to express ourselves whether it offends the religious or not. Mr. Zappa speaks most eloquently about governements founded with morality based on behavior, not religion.

Jim said...

In relation to the use of sex toys in place of the bread and wine, I would encourage viewers to not be too literal. The bread and wine are inherently symbolic. They are metaphors of Jesus giving his body and blood. In the same way that he substitutes literal bodily elements with everyday objects that are easily accessible to the people of his day, sex toys can be seen as contemporary elements that are specific to queer culture and speak of how members of this community share their bodies with each other. There is a level at which putting explicitly sexual objects on this table highlights the sacramental nature of sex and challenges the erotiphobia so pervasive in the western world. I applaud the photographer for having the vision to see beyond a one to one correlation of bread equals body and wine equals blood. He envisions a broader meaning that draws a connection between Jesus giving himself to and for us, and us giving ourselves to and for each other. Of course some will find this offensive, because our culture tells us that sex cannot possibly be sacred. This photograph questions that assumption and asks the viewer to transcend the cultural norm. Not an easy task.