Monday, October 08, 2007


The picture accompanying this Diatribe, is of the front cover of the Big Issue. It portrays a picture of the Panayia Theotokos, that is, the All Holy Mother of God, portrayed in the traditional style of iconography that has been employed by the Orthodox Church for almost one thousand years. According to that tradition, iconography has a purely religious function: that is, it serves to instruct the believer as to central tenets and events upon which the Christian religion is centered, while also serving as a means to venerate saints and worship God. The method of ‘writing’ such images is governed by tradition, and requires a good deal of spiritual preparation and discernment. Viewed from this perspective, to the believer, iconography has no secular, decorative function. It is not art. Rather, it is a sacred and holy window towards the prospect of deification.
Within that tradition, the Panayia is often portrayed holding an infant Christ in her arms, in a tender human scene that serves to remind believers of the ineffable mystery encapsulated in the fact that a) Panayia is a Theotokos, that is she was the vessel through which God made himself manifest in human form, b) Panayia is a mother, thus emphasizing Christ’s humanity and that c) through Christ, Panayia is the mother of all of us that d) in Panayia giving birth to Christ, all women are honoured and are afforded a unique primacy of place within the Christian world-view.
The Panayia in the Big Issue ‘spoof,’ ‘mockery’ or ‘parody’ of Orthodox iconography (which given the above, constitutes a parody and mockery of the beliefs of 350 million Orthodox Christians world-wide, a parody and mockery of a two-thousand year old Orthodox iconographic practice whose roots are firmly based within the ancient Greek tradition, and at least for believers, a parody and mockery of the concept of the Panayia Theotokos) does not hold an infant Christ in her arms. Instead, we see what appears to be a 1950’s photograph of a baby, whose painted arm is raised in the manner of Christ conferring a blessing. That baby, is manifestly not Christ, who is usually portrayed within the Orthodox tradition in a manner prescribed by precedent and with a halo. Panayia, on the hand, does not look upon her ‘child’ in the sorrowful, careworn, deeply loving and self-transcending manner that we see in Orthodox icons. Instead, her eyes are closed, as if she is drawing into herself, oblivious to everything around her and a child’s pacifier is placed in her mouth. When comparing the prototype to this image, the contrast is quite startling and gravely disquieting.
From a perusal of the Big Issue, we learn that the image serves to advertise the cover story which is essentially about Parenthood: “‘Mum’s the Word: What They Don’t Tell You About Parenthood’ Four new parents talk about life with baby: Nicola Philp finds that post natal depression means it’s not just bub who needs comforting; Thuy On shares her pregnant expectations, and dramatic delivery; Pat Kinsella drives fearfully into fatherhood and an exhausted Gillian Curdie takes her daughter to sleep school.”
In other words, in its quest to provide an arresting image that will draw the reader’s attention to its cover story, the Big Image is “taking the piss” at a person and a tradition, venerated by millions. “Taking the piss”, in popular parlance, signifies making a mockery of something, viewing it from its lighter side or divesting it from any serious connotations that it may have for others. As such, it forms an important part of the Australian tradition, closely linked as it is to the proverbial “tall poppy syndrome” which prevents anything, whether human or a denizen of the ethereal realms to grow too much out of proportion of its importance in the consciousness of society. Thus to the inevitable question “Is nothing sacred?” the Australian, or at least my next-door neighbour would respond: “Yeah. Football and beer.” But then again, the Australians’ capacity to make light of a serious situation, coupled with their wry humour are their most endearing features. Such traits are a direct descendant of European nineteenth century liberal values, which sought to demythologize ‘sacred cows’ such as class systems. They are also a product of a hitherto largely classless Australian society and quite possibly, a distant lineal mutation of the first people to “take the piss,” the ancient Greeks, especially Aristophanes through his biting satires and more literally, Menander, with his focus on bodily functions in general.
A deconstruction of the expression “taking the piss” however reveals more than just light-hearted banter. Its literal description of a urologic discharge harbours menacing connotations of paraphilia and a sadistic desire to humiliate that can only parallel the perversions of the urolagniacs and we would do well to recall this semantic substructure when would be proponents of free speech see fit to abandon social norms and the concerns of others in their pursuit of instant titillation.
Given the rapid development of defamation law in recent years, the Western World’s love affair with “free-speech” is amazing. Freedom of expression generally is held to be the product of a mature democratic society, which can cope with the manifestation of diverse or conflicting attitudes and we laud ourselves at arriving at such an apex of civilization. The reality of course is far different. It is questionable how “free” speech is in our mass media, especially when it is controlled only by two or three entities. Undesirable opinions can be lampooned or buried so that cultural or ideological conformity can be achieved, whereas advertising and the constant repetition of mantras dedicated to the wonders of individualism can render even the slightest expression of contrary views heresy.In these heady days, in which we are still enmeshed in the throes of a “War on Terror,” free speech works like this in western democracies: We are all “free” to applaud the invasion of Iraq, even express our concern at its wisdom but we are of course, not free to actively express support for Al Qaeda or armed violence in the furtherance of any cause, even if we were so demented and galactically insane as to want to do so, as certain Islamic clerics in Australia have found out recently.
Ultimately the canon of what is sacred and what can be parodied alters and morphs depending on the vicissitudes and conditions of the time. At this particular juncture, the integrity of the West and its civilizing mission is as sacred as the White Man’s Burden was to Kipling and Victorian England. Religion on the other hand is not and it is here that an inability to understand diverse cultures despite one’s own self-bestowed mantle of gentility and plurality can cause harm.
The Big Issue has, albeit inadvertently, displayed such an inability, almost tantamount to the blunder made by Scandinavian publishers a year or so ago in circulating a cartoon of Muhammad in the guise of a terrorist, his turban in the shape of a bomb. That was nothing more than a thinly disguised sadistic urolagnic attack upon a rival culture and religion, masquerading as free speech. Its publishers should have known, as St John of Damascus did more than a thousand years ago, that the portrayal of Muhammad in his bodily form is a terrible offence to Muslims.
There is nothing outwardly malicious or deliberately hostile towards the Orthodox religion in the Big Issue’s inadvertent, insensitive and rather stupid blunder and it can thus be distinguished from the controversial Muhammad cartoon case. Nor will enraged “Orthodox fundamentalists” descend in fury upon the offices of the Big Issue as harbingers of divine retribution for blasphemy, as was the case in the aforementioned controversy. The publishers of the Big Issue, cognizant of a western tradition that views iconography as art and either not knowing or not caring about the purely religious Orthodox iconographic tradition they have attempted to employ in their quest for publicity, have merely tried to make some sort of point about the trials of parenthood. The point is intelligent, effective but nonetheless, inappropriate.
It is noteworthy that the Big Issue, in attempting to capture the attention of its prospective readers, did not use ‘conventional’ images of the Virgin Mary gleaned from the traditions of the, at least in Australia, ‘more mainstream religions.’ Had they done so, it is arguable that by using such images as are familiar to the religious sensitivities of ‘mainstream Australia’ they would have been even more effective in enticing prospective purchasers to purchase their publication. Why did they not do so? Why did they in contrast, deliberately seek out to employ a relatively unknown iconographic and religious tradition of what is, at least in Australia, a minority religion?
The possible answer is that there is safety in obscurity. The image is reminiscent enough of conventional images of the Virgin Mary to capture the reader’s attention but obscure and exotic enough for it to be dissociated from ‘westernised’ portrayals of the same subject and thus not cause offence. From this, is it possible to draw the inference that underlying such an approach is an assumption that the ‘mainstream’ religions and their adherents are more important, worthy of respect and thus superior to the ‘minority’ religions that exist largely within ethnic ghettoes and who by virtue of their perceived non-penetration within the mainstream are unlikely to protest and even if they do so, their relative impotence and insignificance within broader society will render such protest harmless anyway? One would hope not.
In this country, migrants have had to espouse various British-Australian derived perspectives and assimilate various assumptions in order to adapt to an ‘Australian way of life.’ This is an on-going process, as can be evidenced by Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews assertion that the new citizenship test will assist migrants to learn about Australian values and “our way of life.” While established ethnic groups within Australia have, over the years, had their loyalty and devotion to Australia arbitrarily impugned according to the notion that a man cannot serve two masters, simply because they are ‘foreign,’ these ethnic minorities have acculturated themselves, in accordance with the norms dictated to them by the dominant culture. While the assumption behind such a demand for acculturation is that the dominant culture is superior, this does not excuse the ignorant parodying of aspects of minority’s culture and beliefs.
What the Big Issue has therefore achieved, is to highlight the inequitable relationship between cultures in this country, at least in the popular consciousness. Had a minority publication or culture attempted to employ western conventional ‘sacred’ images in a similar manner, their loyalty to Australia would have been impugned and they would have been accused of being un-Australian. However, because ‘our’ cultures and religions are only tolerated in so far as they do not conflict with British-Australian values and not accepted as equal in value with the dominant culture, they are open to selective abuse, which abuse will no doubt be attractively packed within layers of references to free-speech, all tied up with secularist string.
Until next time, this, from the Akathist Hymn: “Orators most eloquent do we behold mute as fish before you, O Theotokos… Rejoice, you who proves the philosophers fools. Rejoice, you who proves the logicians illogical.”

First published in NKEE on 8 October 2007