This Is Not a Picture of Jesus. It May Not Even Be a Picture.

ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are all aflutter about an alleged painting of Jesus hanging in Jackson Middle School in Ohio. The painting was donated by students and has been quietly corrupting secular values since 1947, according to this story.

The constitutional arguments and response from the Liberty Institute, defending the school district, are predictable. What would not be predictable would be my suggestion for a response from the school district.

The argument would be: This is not a picture of Jesus. It is a picture of President Obama. After all, Obama’s a calm, forward-looking, confidence-inspiring person who inspires messianic hopes among some acolytes, such as Newsweek and Foreign Policy.  Or it could be a picture of Jesús, a hardworking undocumented proletarian, struggling to survive in the fascist hellhole that is Amerikkka. It could be a chair. This could be a painting of ANYTHING. That’s the beauty of post-modernist theory.

The argument would be based on the firm, tested concepts of post-modernist literary theory. Essentially, art of any kind is simply a starting “text” that the subjective individual interprets according to his own frameworks as colored by race, gender, economic inequality or assorted victimological modalities. Objectivity does not exist — it’s a myth of western rational imperialist hegemonistic oppression. But don’t take my word for it! This explains the issue nicely, and here’s a key excerpt:

Postmodernism takes the relativistic position that there is no absolute truth or objective reality, that what we experience as reality is a social construct (solely constructed by individual human minds), that it consists only of our interpretations of what the world means to us individually, and that individual responses to a given cultural product comprise the whole reality of that product.

Since individual responses tend to differ from one another and change over time, postmodernist thought is skeptical of explanations that claim to be valid for all human groups, cultures, or times. Instead, it encourages the exploration and comparison of individuals’ subjective responses to a given poem, painting, or other cultural product. It examines the role that language, power, and motivation play in the formation of ideas and beliefs.

This sets up a clear defense for the school, if it wants to take a bracingly non-traditional approach and set aside generations of assumed meaning for the painting. Simply argue this is not actually a picture of Jesus, but a text/representation open to multiple, conflicting meanings based on the frames employed by the subjective viewer. Surely the ACLU and Freed From Religion Foundation understand the critical role of free enquiry and the value of post-modernism.

This stance makes this less a separation of religion and state case and more a matter of free speech and open enquiry based on the principles of deconstructionism. The painting means whatever an individual thinks it means. To think otherwise — to assign one single, dominant interpretation to an artwork with fluid intertextual boundaries (couldn’t it be a member of Occupy Wall Street? So soulful looking!) — would suggest adherence to rigidly conventional modes of literary interpretation. That is, art means what the artist, or the art itself, says it means, a stance that is, of course, shockingly bourgeois and conventional and not worthy of progressive institutions operating at the cutting edge of social liberties.

The picture must stay. It is not Jesus as interpreted by the bitter clingers. It’s not even a picture. Jackson Middle School, onward to a questioning attitude toward all art.

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