- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2005

LONDON — The Tate Britain museum has made an unprecedented decision to pull a work of religious art from an exhibition over fears that it might offend Muslims.

Artist John Latham’s “God is Great” features copies of the Koran, Bible and Judaic Talmud that have been cut apart and embedded in thick glass.

“We believe the particular circumstances we find ourselves in post-7 July make it difficult for this work to be viewed as the artist had intended — as a commentary on the evolution of religious thought from an original state of nothingness — but instead as an overtly political act,” a Tate spokeswoman told The Washington Times.

The July 7 suicide bombings killed 52 passengers on three subway trains and a bus.

Mr. Latham, an 84-year-old British artist who first came to note as a member of what critics have called London’s “1960s artistic avant garde,” was furious at the decision.

“Tate Britain have shown cowardice over this,” Mr. Latham told the Observer newspaper.

“I think it’s a daft thing to do because, if they want to help the militants, this is the way to do it.

“It’s not even a gesture as strong as censorship. It’s just a loss of nerve on the part of the administration.”

The case marked the latest in a series of disputes in Europe over religion in the arts, including rioting by Sikhs protesting a play in Birmingham, England, and the assassination of a Dutch filmmaker over a 10-minute movie that some Muslims deemed anti-Islamic.

“As far as I’m aware,” the Tate spokeswoman said, this marked the first time the museum had dropped an exhibit over religious concerns.

If a similar problem arose again, “we would judge things on a case-by-case basis,” she said.

In other brushes with controversy, Mr. Latham presented a work that involved burning copies of an encyclopedia, and another in which he chewed up a volume of art criticism.

Unease in the art world, which on occasion has spilled over into violence, appears on the upswing in Europe.

Late last year, about 400 Sikh demonstrators stormed the Birmingham Repertory Theater in the Midlands and forced it to cancel a play, “Behzti,” that depicted rape and killing in a Sikh temple. The play’s author, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, fled into hiding. In the Netherlands, filmmaker Theo van Gogh was fatally shot and his body mutilated by a Dutch-born Muslim terrorist. His film, titled “Submission,” featured women in see-through Islamic robes that revealed their breasts.

In Britain earlier this year, Christian groups as well as thousands of viewers complained to the British Broadcasting Corp. for televising “Jerry Springer — the Opera,” a musical that is loaded with swearwords and depicts Jesus wearing diapers.

Tate Britain said it planned to hold a discussion at its London premises on Nov. 8 in which “a panel of leading figures on art, ethics and religion will debate art’s claim to cultural independence.”

The Muslim Council of Britain told the BBC that “we have not received any complaints about” Mr. Latham’s piece and that “we would have preferred to have been consulted by Tate Britain before the decision was taken to remove” it.

“Sometimes, presumptions are incorrectly made about what is acceptable to Muslims, and this can be counterproductive,” the group said.

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