Religion, sex and money: the hedonism of scandal

Some of you reading the title of this post may think that I am referring to the most hedonistic prime minister in the world: Silvio Berlusconi and his adventures with teenagers as well as professional, and well paid, escorts. Yet, I am actually referring to another, less known and less publicized, case which has been taking place in Australia since May 2009. A quite unknown filmmaker has decided to sponsor his new ideas through the ever- successful use of blasphemy.

The filmmaker Justin Sisely wishes to produce a ‘documentary’ that will follow two virgins (one male and female) as they auction their virginity to unknown bidders. To succeed in his attempt, he, of course, needs certified virgins. Today, as we know, (at least in the ‘Western’ hemisphere) this is not a simple task, and to find two who are willing to prostitute their first intercourse is probably even harder.

Nonetheless, if this was not already controversial enough, Mr. Sisely has decided to use ‘religion’ as the cheapest (and probably fastest) way to reach visibility. In May he started a recruitment advertisement for his two ‘actors’ which featured the Virgin Mary with male genitalia drawn crudely on her forehead. The poster has been now banned. Mr. Sisely has declared that he has received death threats from upset Christians. Yet we are all very well aware that when Christians threaten or kill people in the name of religion, even when in a church or a court room, this produces a relatively low level of media exposure.

Now, reflecting on that point, Mr. Sisely has likely decided that if he must have his life threatened by a religious lunatic, at least let it be a Muslim one, so that in the worst of unfortunate instances he may at least hope to have the same posthumous glory that the unknown Theo Van Gogh had. Hence, the filmmaker has now embarked upon the revised recruitment campaign – using depictions of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, instead on the posters.

I find this story interesting, not because of the clear (and a bit worn out and clichéd) exploitation of religion, sex and money, but because of the idea that our societies are becoming more secular. Religion is still relevant in many aspects of life – hedonism included – as this case shows. Despite that religious blasphemy has been used for a very long time to attract profitable controversy, it seems that its power is now waning. Yet the offensive product does not have a very long shelf-life as far as memory is concerned.  For example: how many of you can remember the scandal of the Piss Christ?  Or, more recently, the works of Sarah Maple?   Surely, despite desperate bids for maximum exposure, both examples have faded into obscurity for most people.

The reason for this is that these types of ‘arts’, advertisements and blasphemy-based attention-seeking are focused toward obtaining emotional responses. They aim to upset the people for whom the given symbol has an emotional value or belief attached (indeed, those for whom the symbol has no such value will ignore it).  This provocation exploits the ‘secular’ context, in which the ‘believer’s’ emotional response will be perceived as being less rational than the artist’s inflammatory ‘art’.

In this process an economic, exploitable, ‘value’ is produced: those who began the controversy become the centre of the discussion.  This surrounds the figure of the ‘artist’ with other emotions which, no less than those of the offended ‘believers’, are not based on a rational consideration of fact but rather on ‘gut feelings’ – such as blind defense of the right to offend religion, or break the taboo. It is within this context that the hedonism of scandal finds its great, but short-lived, economic value.

It’s still better than nothing, I suppose, in these days of economic crisis.

4 thoughts on “Religion, sex and money: the hedonism of scandal

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  1. For as long as I have been alive society has always been secular. It’s only now that its becoming more popular for people to bring their expressions into a public realm.
    The fundamental difference Justin Sisely has over “the Piss Christ” Sarah Mapel or even Bill Henderson is that he is not hanging images of his in an art exhibition inviting people to view at their own discretion, in the hope that passers-by may purchase a image to decorate their homestead.

    The “Virgins Wanted” images have been placed throughout cities and inner city suburbs forcing people to look and participate in the subtext: sex + money= fameandfortune. I agree with Prof Marranci that the nature of the film was controversial enough without Mr Siselys iconoclastic views.
    However, I am not prepared to join the anti-selling virginity campaign – just yet. Sisely is still offering his potential cast and audience a choice. This is what I find compelling within his concept: the imagery and subtext made me feel as though I had to participate.
    Why, would I find this compelling?
    As a city dweller we usually see, on average, around three hundred advertisements per day, this advertising combination was the only one that converted my subconscious into action.

  2. The irony of such visibility gained through advertising of this nature is that the very people who are incited by it are the same people who petpetuate interest in the topic through their reactions. Absent of some form of reaction, the interest (and therefore the media attention) would cease to exist.

    As society becomes increasingly liberal, the notion of shock value changes. Prof Marranci has an interesting point – despite our increasing secularism, we are somehow still intrisically tied to symbols we feel we should admire or respect, which is where I feel the strong emotional responses emanate from, more so than a genuine, personalised offence in itself.

    Most people are still, and will always be, concerned with conforming or at least fitting with society on some level. It is clear that through his advertising campaign, Justin has transcended this need, or, at the very least, is doing a good job of purporting to.

    His behaviour could be interpreted in one of two ways. Firstly, ignorant and without regard for the consequences or harm his advertising may invite. Secondly, he could be interpreted as completely aware of how his actions can and will incite reactions in society. Perhaps his interest is as much in the reactions to his concept as the concept itself, as any concept needs a degree of passion or passionate reactions to survive.

    It will be interesting to see how the film pans out.

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