by Hector Guzman
On a wall in Israel’s Haifa Museum of Art hangs a life-sized sculpture depicting Ronald McDonald crucified on a cross. While this kind of art is not shockingly unusual in Western society (consider the urine-soaked Piss Christ or the gigantic sex toy Tree), Christians in Israel have not responded well. In fact, the installation is so controversial that violent protests have erupted between hundreds of Arab Christians and police, accompanied by calls from both Christian leaders and Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sports to remove the sculpture. However, even amidst all of the negative press, the provocative McJesus bears testament to the dangerous entanglement between religion and art.
The artwork, created by Finnish artist Jani Leinonen, was originally meant to be a criticism of society’s obsession with consumerism. NPR clarifies that the exhibition that displays McJesus:
employ[s] religious symbols to criticize the encroachment of the consumer culture on our lives in general, and on the religious sphere in particular. . . The artists also criticize the way religions use consumer values and practices in order to prosper in the contemporary reality.
For all intents and purposes, McJesus takes a stab at capitalism and materialism. Specifically, McDonalds represents a larger-than-life corporation that has permeated popular culture. McDonalds has become synonymous with Americanization and has expanded to over 100 countries. In this context, it can be said that McDonalds has conquered most of the world the same way Christianity has. But Leinonen’s work merely uses a crucified Ronald McDonald as a medium; he could have easily used Mickey Mouse or Captain America instead. The debate of McJesus extends deeper than just the union of art and religion—the work forces a discussion of deeply held values and the influence of consumerism in our lives.
McJesus was installed in Haifa in August 2018, with the Washington Post claiming that more than 30,000 have viewed the artwork since then. Museum director Nissim Tal has said that the installation has been displayed in other countries without any incidents. So why are the protests unique to Israel?
Christians in Israel make up just 2% of the country’s population. The fact that the artwork has been displayed for five months before protests broke out suggest that complaints have gone unanswered and official responses have been slow from predominantly Jewish politicians. And while some believe that Israel is not a Christians-friendly country, it is worthwhile to consider the cultural context of Israel’s dilemma with provocative art. As stated above, Christians are the clear minority in a Jewish country, which itself exists in a primarily Muslim region. As an adviser to the Assembly of Catholic Bishops in the Holy Land explains: “We are Christians, and we are also part of a traditional Arab society where freedom of expression is relative. . . Every society needs to develop at its own pace. It is quite possible that in another 50 years, no one would care.”
So the backlash that McJesus faces is not without reason; it would be ludicrous to depict the Jewish or Muslim faiths in a similar satirical fashion. Yet because Leinonen himself is from Finland, it is more likely that he genuinely wanted to draw a comparison between the cult-like obsession of capitalism and religion, rather than offend Christians worldwide. With that said, the creation of the piece was possible through the Western principle of freedom of expression. Perhaps other Western societies are not as offended by Leinonen’s work because of the seeming self-evidence of this principle.
However, Tal is reluctant to remove the piece. Although Leinonen also wants his work removed from the museum as a show of solidarity with Palestinians, the museum insisted that removing the piece (and other provocative pieces) would be similar to censorship. Fearing the infringement of free speech, Tal’s hesitation to remove the work accentuates the religious and political tension that exists in Israel and in the Middle East. He remarks, “We will be defending freedom of speech, freedom of art, and freedom of culture, and will not take it down.” Indeed, what better place to protect freedom of speech than a museum that houses similarly controversial artworks? Clearly, McJesus is not intended as a representation of hate or intolerance, in which case it would have been taken down. Tal adds that a museum is not merely for portraits of flowers—understandably, an art museum should be an institution that promotes artistic expression, not one that promotes censorship
There are a few lessons to take away from the McJesus debacle. First of all, Leinonen’s artwork is not an object of reverence to the Christian faith—it is a satire of life itself. Both symbols depicted in Leinonen’s work cater to the masses: people indulge in cheap fast food the same way they indulge in pious soul-saving practices. Are people more faithful to consumer trends than their own religion? Secondly, it raises an important question on censorship and artistic expression. Are artists capable of creating provocative work that critiques our society? More importantly, are we—as consumers of both art and fast food—capable of accepting those works for what they are? These are necessary questions to consider when contemplating the clown on the cross.