By Martin Mosebach
A discussion paper for the conference “Is One Permitted to do That? Art and Its Boundaries,” at the Institute for Cultural Studies at Essen
Does the German State have a genuine interest in forbidding blasphemy in art and in published opinion and should it enforce this prohibition with punishment? One could take the point of view that the secular state, which remains neutral toward the religions and anti-religions of its citizens, is sentenced to silence on the question of blasphemy. Blasphemy does not exist for the state—just as little as it could punish a dispute about the weather which featured insults to the sun and the moon. To be sure, it would have to pay heed to insults directed at the meteorologists so that the border with defamation and slander was not crossed.
The question, however, is whether the Federal Republic of Germany is such an ideologically neutral state. If one considers the Constitution the answer is easy; according to its preamble, the Constitution was drafted “in the awareness of the responsibility before God and men.” (1) The question of which God the fathers and mothers of this Constitution may have been thinking is also easy to answer: the God of Christendom. One would have hardly thought of another at the end of the 1940s.
This is not the place to unfold in detail, as a question of the history of ideas, how the principles of the free constitutional state, which the Federal Republic wants to be, have emerged from the commandments of Christianity – and in conflict with them – even where these principles strove to be in apparent contrast with Christianity. The very Article 1 of the Constitution, concerning the dignity of man, is unimaginable absent Christian inspiration. Precisely the inalienability of this dignity —its character indelebilis —is a Christian inheritance.
The famous Böckenförde formulation (2) that the civil-liberal state rests on premises that it can neither create nor guarantee signifies that the Federal Republic did not arise fixed and finished from the head of Zeus. Instead, it adopted philosophical and moral ideas that have arisen in other contexts. These preconditions – not created by the Federal Republic or by its lawgivers but built into the foundation of the state – basically have to remain under the special protection of the state so long as the Constitution should exist. The state has an interest that its Constitution should not be intellectually hollowed out and desiccated into empty rules but remain a living reality. Here would be found the duty of the state to protect that God, upon Whose commandments it wants to construct its moral order, from abuse, which would, over time, deprive this moral order of respect.
This is not contradicted by the fact that in the societal change of the last decades the understanding of the religious bond of the Constitution has been impaired, to put it mildly. It is of course questionable whether this invocation of God would still remain, if the new constitution (Verfassung) required by the present Constitution (Grundgesetz) would actually be created. (3) The question is however hypothetical: for a long time there will be no new constitution. All substantial political forces agree on this.
However, even for the strictly ideologically neutral state the need can arise of a fight against blasphemy where it endangers the societal order. This can happen if a large enough group of believers feels so hurt in their religious convictions by blasphemy that their revolt against it becomes a public problem. This question affects the foundation of every state: the monopoly of power of the state. This monopoly is based on the relationship between protection and obedience: the citizen gives up to the state the violent pursuit of his own honor and rights. He is obedient to the prohibition of violence and in return receives the protection of the state. When a significantly large group of people no longer view their religious persuasion as protected by the state, this relationship becomes endangered.
For a long time, this appeared to be only a theoretical question. The Christians of Germany in their overwhelming majority have lost interest in religious problems. What we love to call tolerance is for the most part nothing but plain indifference. The depiction of the Christian religion in school and in the media especially emphasizes a portrayal of Christianity as a violent ideology and a threat to peace. Baudelaire’s saying that Voltaire is the “prédicateur des concierges”, the preacher for the janitors, holds true for those intellectual environments of the Federal Republic, in which the name Voltaire has never been heard. Today public opinion is that Christians should plainly be obligated to put up with invective against their beliefs without complaint. Atheists with spotty knowledge of the Bible demand that in the face of blasphemy, Christians “turn the other cheek” in accord with the command of their master.
Moreover, there is no protest even from the Christian side. Even bishops, embarrassed, look away, when there is talk of blasphemy. They do not want to notice it, so that they do not have to take up a position.
Yet ever since a strong Muslim minority has arisen in Germany it’s become a hot topic again. Unexpectedly, the advocates of integration in the German parties find themselves confronted by people who don’t understand any joking when it comes to blasphemy. They view in the demand for tolerance above all the demand that the non-Muslims of Germany respect Islamic beliefs and treat them with respect. This they demand even from those who do not share these beliefs. In England the maintenance of the public order required a prohibition of Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ due to mass demonstrations of Muslims against the defamation of the Prophet Isa. In Germany too, the penal proscription of blasphemy might gain importance again against the background of the growth of Islam in Germany.
Is the threat of censorship and punishment in the case of blasphemy a menace to art? In contrast to other European nations, the Federal Republic wanted to anchor in its constitution a guarantee of “Freedom of Art” in addition to the guaranties of freedom of opinion and press. This guarantee appears dubious to many jurists today because this freedom is really sufficiently secured through freedom of opinion and press and because laying claim to this freedom before a court of law always requires the test of whether the case at issue is really about a work of art. This is a question which a court of law can no longer answer at this point in our intellectual history. Permit me to discuss this question not as a matter of law but from the standpoint of the artist. Contrary to the demand for unrestricted freedom, which artists like to assert, in the history of art it has been rather the limitation of this freedom that has been most conducive to development of art. Not being allowed to express everything and being surrounded by rigid rules has had a most stimulating effect on the imagination of artists and has inspired them to the boldest solutions. The saying is famous that “the censor refines the style. ” Then there is the maxim of that expert on censorship Karl Kraus, “A satire which the censor understands should be prohibited.”
Today, blasphemy is completely without risk if it isn’t directed against the prophet Mohammed. The attempts to outdo oneself in blasphemy miss the mark (the secret hope always remains perceptible that despite all experience a scandal or a career-enhancing prohibition will occur). Vulgarity acquires a distinctly stale after-taste, because it struts before the public in a repulsive way its snobbery and demands for toleration. It is reported that Jacques Rousseau found himself one day in the blasphemous company of mocking libertines. He silenced these gentlemen with the following words: “If it is already base to remain silent when evil is spoken about absent friends, how much worse is it to be silent, when the same happens to God, who is present.” Here is manifested that seriousness appropriate to the topic of blasphemy. Blasphemy as a casual attitude or a calculated game is cheap and cowardly; its artistic contribution remains correspondingly small. It is truly hopeless in the present age to appeal to the taste of artists who lust for blasphemy: to appeal to the instinctive aversion of harming the defenseless, of preaching to the choir while emitting howls of victory, of putting on a show before a dull and bored milieu, as if one were risking being burnt at the stake by the inquisition. In this context, I do not want to hide the fact that I am unable to feel outrage when Muslims who have been insulted in their belief give blasphemous artists (if we want to call them that) a powerful scare. I welcome it when there are men in the world like Jean-Jacques Rousseau for whom God is present. It will foster the social climate when blasphemy becomes dangerous again.
The claim of the artist to his freedom is absolute and does not tolerate the slightest restriction. But this claim is not directed against the state or society but against the artist himself. What he must fight is the divide in his own head: the readiness to serve expectations of society, to dress up his thoughts in a fashionable way, to want to please, to be at accord with popular tendencies and not to stray from the consensus omnium. He must write what the angels or devils, the muses or demons, his unconscious and his dreams whisper in his ear. For him freedom is not a right or bundle of rights for the artist. Freedom is an attribute of his own person which he has obtained through a life of self-examination. This freedom can without doubt conflict with the views of society. It can happen that the artist has to pay a high price for his freedom.
I am convinced that the truly free artist pays this price with pleasure. For him, it is self-evident: societal order and personal freedom cannot always be harmonized. The law cannot regulate every aspect of life. There are collisions which are the result of irresolvable conflicts. It is the pride and honor of the artist that he does not lament the collision with the legal order where it necessarily results from his artwork and refuses to scream for the courts. The artist who feels the calling to violate societal convention, the beliefs of those for whom God is present, or the law, is obligated—of this I am convinced—to follow this calling. He will gladly pay the price that must be incurred even if it puts his life at danger. The risks which he embraces in his breach of convention will at the same time spare him from carelessness in dealing with it. He will ask himself whether this blasphemous passage or that blasphemous element in his work is really necessary. Is it an irreplaceable part of my work or just mere squiggles, whim or naughtiness? Should I assume this risk if I want to continue to look at myself in the mirror?
And these questions will be of advantage to his work of art. And the serious believers will not withhold their respect, however reluctantly, from a work that arose in this way.
Afterword for my Benevolent Critics
The above text does not really belong in a collection of essays because it was not conceived as a perfected argument but as the basis for a discussion in a scholarly seminar. This explains the conciseness of the theses which did not want to take into consideration all imaginable points of view of a topic that is limitless in scope. It was perhaps careless to turn over such a text which was not a newspaper article to a newspaper for publication. The newspaper provided a totally different audience—one not initiated into the context of the conference. The strong and mostly irate response which this small piece attracted requires that I explain it one more time, in order to let the reader of this book decide for himself whether the alarmed and outraged tone of most reactions was in keeping with the facts.
Outrage is the keyword: it was above all my remark in the third section in which I say “I am unable to feel outraged when Muslims who are insulted in their belief give blasphemous artists a powerful scare.” In the view of many commentators that was supposed to mean that I welcomed stoning and flogging in Muslim countries and murderous assassinations from Muslims in Europe. I must say that the text concerned itself exclusively with the state of affairs in Germany. Insofar as it argued from a legal standpoint, the point of this essay was the maintenance and strengthening of the monopoly of power of the state which is thwarted precisely by the acts of vengeance of raving fanatics. I am convinced that even the very modest sanctions of the German blasphemy law were conducive towards appeasing the anger of the offended because they showed that the German state disapproves of attacks on their religion. The “powerful scare” of which I spoke, wasn’t really meant as a euphemism for a suicide bomber but was meant to signify that sudden realization of having greatly offended a strong and self-conscious group for whom religion is not private opinion, but objective reality. A society is a work of art that is not just regulated by laws — tact is above all also a political virtue. He who condones contempt will reap wrath and damage the peaceful coexistence of all. Here Machiavelli’s maxim is apropos “Where good morals end, laws have to begin.” What has amazed me is the refusal of the German cultural commentators to grant the author, who is not and does not want to be a judge or a lawgiver, the old privilege of feeling understanding for the “Verbrecher aus verlorener Ehre” and the figures like Michael Kohlhaas. (4) And for the terrorist Kohlhaas what was at stake were a few horses and not the creator of the world. The central question of what blasphemy actually is was wisely excluded from the conference in Essen. It holds special problems for Christians where in the center of Christ’s divine message stands the unsurpassable blasphemy of the crucifixion of the Son of God and his doubting of the sense of this death. In Judaism and Islam this matter is perhaps somewhat easier, although even here the word of Gómez Dávila may be added “Most insults of God are only insults of the sexton.” In any case the debate has shown one thing: the strengthening of the German civil religion and its doctrines. To trespass on these is the true current form of blasphemy.
- The German Constitution ratified in 1949 for West Germany – Trans.
- Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde is a German judge and legal philosopher – Trans.
- The reference is to the presently existing German constitution (the Grundgesetz) originally intended to be temporary and to be replaced by a constitution (Verfassung) for reunited Germany. In fact this was not done after 1989 but the territories that were a part of the former German Democratic Republic acceded to the Grundgesetz. – Trans.
- Verbrecher aus Verlorener Ehre (Schiller) and Michael Kohlhaas (Kleist) are examples in German literature of individuals leading a violent and solitary struggle against perceived violations of their rights – Trans.
(Translated by Stuart J. Chessman. From Der Ultramontane 112 – 120 (Sankt Ulrich Verlag, Augsburg, 2012). Translated by kind permission of Martin Mosebach