According to an interview with the artist, the image is intended to be “reverent.”
This album is my prayer for America," he explained of the artwork, which shows the rapper kneeling on a U.S. flag in a Muslim prayer pose.
"Unless you are absolutely convinced that all of Islam is against you as an American, you should only see it as me treating the flag reverently."
Brother Ali is, without a doubt, one of the country’s pre-eminent Caucasian Muslim rappers, and I’m in no position to pass judgment on his work. The last rap tune I bought was “The Humpty Dance.” Ali has made appearances for the local Occupy movement when they protested evictions, and spoken out against antigay lyrics in rap. (Good for him, although it reminds me again that while I see rainbow flags outside half the churches in my progressive neighborhood, I wonder how many you see fluttering outside of mosques.) I may disagree with his politics and opinions, but it sounds as if he has overcome personal chaos with the strength of faith. You could say it's all show, an attempt to stand out in a crowded field, but there's not that many guys from Wisconsin who decide to go to Mecca as a career move.
But. That album cover. Two points.
Point #1 Do his intentions matter?
While listening to the BBC today I heard an interview with a California church singled out by the Southern Poverty Law Center - “an organization that monitors hate groups,” and thus utterly neutral and trustworthy, of course; the very act of dedicating yourself to the task proves you’re on the side of the angels. The interviewer, having been informed that the church endorsed the "Innocence of Muslims" YouTube video, badgered the pastor about supporting hate, sounding as though he had a film of sour jam around his teeth as he spoke. The pastor asked the interviewer to explain how the film was inaccurate. There wasn’t any response to that, but the earnestness of the pastor and all that JEEESUS talk was supposed to say it all.
Then the Southern Poverty Law Center spokesperson said that the church wasn’t violent, but such extremism, combined with easy access to firearms, made for a worrisome situation.
The impetus for the story, just to recap, was a video that supposedly made people on the other side of the world rise up in murderous rage, which had nothing to do with the church in the profile, except that they endorsed its sentiments. They do not believe that Mohammed was a prophet. I suspect the interviewer didn’t, either, but of course he said “The prophet Mohammed” whenever the subject arose.
It’s just easier all around that way. You get less mail.
Anyway. The video was intended to offend, so that’s one of the reasons to justify whatever befalls its makers - and, by extension, to tar those who don’t denounce it. This only applies if the offended group has an established predisposition to burn things and hurt people; the artist should have been aware of this, and hence tempered his speech accordingly.
If something is not intended to offend, should we accept the artist’s intentions above our own reactions?
If something is created with the knowledge that it will probably be misinterpreted and cause offense, is the artist responsible for the reaction to the misinterpretation?
The old whipping-horse Piss Christ is back in the news, for example. It’s a lovely work. It really is. The artist has stated it’s not anti-religious, but intended to deplore “commercializing or cheapening of Christian icons in contemporary culture.” No one thinks of that, of course, because he gave it a cheap gaudy name that pulled a big McLuhan: the medium is literally the message, and the sensationalist title swamps any discussion of its aesthetics, its intention, or the artist’s expressed intention to use bodily fluids as a means of combining the sacred and the physical. (Or so he says.)
Intentions, in other words, are just one element we should bring to our understanding of a piece of art. They might not assuage our objections, but at least we grasp the full spectrum of complexity that surrounds contentious ideas in a free society.
That’s one point. Let me now turn off my Art History college-minor brain.
Point #2: Oh, to hell with all that. Dear Brother Ali: the flag is not a prayer rug. Stand up and fold it right and go to a VFW hall where they’ll tell you what should be done with a flag that’s been treated like that.
Shame on you.
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