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Reframing "White Jesus"

Justin Renel Joseph's case against the Met asks, where is the line between censorship and rebuilding history?

by Annie Armstrong
28 December 2015, 3:45pm

Perugino’s The Resurrection. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Recently, artist/scientist Richard Neave put a face to Jesus Christ using computerized tomography of three skulls from Israeli archaeological sites. According to historical context and Neave’s computer animation, Jesus himself was a Middle-Eastern Jewish man. So why is a Scandinavian surfer-type the most prominent representation of His Holy Countenance? The same week, 33-year old Manhattanite Justin Renel Joseph was struck by this inaccuracy as he walked through the Metropolitan Museum of Art this November. According to the New York Post, Joseph interpreted five paintings that depicted this image of a white Jesus as “offensive aesthetic whitewashing,” on the grounds that Jesus ought to have “black hair like wool and skin of bronze,” in fact, a lot more like himself, a self-described “biracial male who is of Hebrew and African descendant,” and also, “a Christian.”

Joseph is now suing the Met, according to the deposition, over the “imposition of anti-Semitic, racist and offensive artworks on the Plaintiff in a public forum, in violation of the First Amendment [...] and in violation of Titles II and VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” You can read the full account of his case against the Met on his website, Take Down Your Aryan Jesus Art.

A spokesperson for The Met defended the works to artnet, stating, “When they were painted, it was typical for artists to depict subjects with the same identity as the local audience. This phenomenon occurs in many other cultures, as well." This is a challenging response, though, because it claims to be restoring history by objectively displaying the depictions of Jesus as they were perceived in that time, and it also opts to tell history from a white perspective without explicit clarification. The Met is the largest museum in America and reflects a national collection, therefore the reach of its influence goes beyond just those involved in the world of art history. It’s also one of the most visited museums in the world, and the average patron isn't expected to have extensive knowledge of art history. The Met’s mission statement includes, “advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects, and, to that end, of furnishing popular instruction." With a goal of, essentially, educating the masses, it can be seen as elitist to assume that everyone coming into the museum has enough education to know that these paintings are displayed to reflect the aesthetics of their time.  

Sebastiano Ricci’s The Holy Family of Angels. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

More modern depictions of Jesus Christ have turned this "traditional" model on its head. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ remains one of the most controversial works of art to-date, continuing to upset Christians two decades after its debut. Not to mention the notoriously botched restoration of Elias Garcia Martinez’s Ecce Homo, contemporarily construed as a disgrace to Italian Fresco. More recently, the depiction of Jesus as a modern gay man in Doug Blanchard’s book of paintings, Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision, has conservative Christians deeply disturbed. Interpreting the face of Jesus Christ has long been a lasting endeavor, and the artists who have subversively attempted to do so are incessantly met with disapproval.

Granted this context, Joseph’s case raises the question of whether museums ought to edit their displays to evolve with the sentiments of contemporary audiences. Analogous to these circumstances is the Smithsonian Institute’s decision in the mid-1990’s to scale back their Enola Gay exhibition, which was widely criticized as un-American by veterans and members of Congress. This decision, however, was decried by historians, who argued that “the original exhibit provided a historical context for the bombing that would not be available now.”

Undoubtedly, the depiction of Jesus as a white man plays into the long history of dominant hegemonical narratives. What separates the inflammatory language between a work like Piss Christ from The Holy Family of Angels (shown above), is that one attempts to challenge cultural and historical norms, while the other depicts an idealized vision of history (a history in which angels exist in corporeal forms, for example). The other side of this argument, however, is the sheer number of cultures that have adapted their own depictions of Jesus Christ in order to allow their “othered” communities to identify with the savior figure—whether that portrayal is historically accurate, or not. Artistic representations of a Chinese Jesus, Black Jesus, and, as previously mentioned, Homosexual Jesus exist unrepresented in the Met. In order for the museum's rebuttal to hold up, shouldn’t these other depictions be included in their collection?

Joseph’s case urges us to rethink the context that plays into displaying singular cultural perspectives today. In a cultural moment growing ever more politically correct, inclusive, and intersectional, it’s a paramount moment for this kind of conversation. Last week, acclaimed race reporter Shaun King hammered home this exact issue, saying “When the man who is deemed the central figure of a religion and indeed the savior of the entire world is consistently portrayed to look like a Scandinavian sailor when he more likely resembled a Syrian refugee, it's being done to advance an Anglo-Saxon, white supremacist agenda.” Joseph reiterated King’s point in an interview with artnet, asserting, "This is the only art we see…It's whites-only art."

What do you think? Should The Met take down these five paintings, add more, or leave things as-is? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments section below.

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