I recently received a letter from a fan (let’s call him “Tom”) who was disturbed and offended by a painting I had created. I’d like to share my response and open this subject up for some (hopefully) civilized discussion.
Here’s the e-mail:
Hello Mr. Stout,
I am a great admirer and long time fan of your incredible artwork.
However, in perusing your website recently I came across your “Happy Easter” print. I found this image disturbing and out of turn with the rest of your body of work. This depiction of Jesus Christ is, in my opinion, in poor taste and disgusting on a multitude of levels, not the “fun” kind of disgusting.
I’m all for artistic expression but I have to ask, what is the motivation behind this image? I’m truly curious what set of beliefs, feelings and experiences leads one to be compelled to create such an image?
Here’s my response:
Thank you for your interest in my work. I’m happy to explain one of my favorite pieces, as a few people have had your same reaction. Most of my friends, upon seeing it for the first time, laughed out loud and then told me I was going to burn in Hell. It is one of my most popular prints, by the way. Of course, explaining humor is the quickest way to make something funny become unfunny — but I’ll try, nevertheless.
First off, if you haven’t noticed over time, I can have a very dark and subversive sense of humor. For the most part, this has been expressed in my underground comix work, where no subject is off limits (Thank you, Robert Crumb). I have loved the dark humor of cartoonists Gahan Wilson, Charles Addams, Rodrigues and Sam Gross for all of my life.
I am also known for designing zombies (I was the production designer for the cult classic Return of the Living Dead). Years ago, I was commissioned to create a one-man show of zombie paintings for a prestigious gallery here in Los Angeles. For this show I decided to come up with a number of fresh takes on zombies and use them to parody popular culture. I created a zombie version of Grant Wood’s famous painting “American Gothic”, for example:
While ruminating on possible subjects for this show it occurred to me that, technically, Jesus was the first zombie, i. e., he was the first person we know of to die and then be brought back to life. Since parody was on my mind, I also included the Easter Bunny, a religious icon that actually pre-dates Christ (Christianity absorbed a lot of other religious cultures to make Christianity more appealing to the folks they were converting. The rabbit — and eggs — symbolized Spring fertility to the pagans. Since the pagans’ celebration took place roughly the same time as Christ’s resurrection, rabbits and eggs became part of the Easter celebration. The Christmas yule log and Christmas tree are other examples. Many fundamentalist Christians have strictly banned the Easter Bunny, Easter eggs, Christmas trees and all other forms of paganism from their Easter celebrations).
One of the trademarks of the zombies that I design is that they’re all happy. My zombie Jesus is no exception; by that big smile on his face it seems that he’s glad to be back.
There is currently an ongoing public debate about “crossing the line”, humor-wise. I agree with nearly all of the professional comedians who feel that there is no line, that every subject is up for grabs and nothing should be taboo. That flies in the face of devout Muslims, for example, who hold that any depiction of the prophet Mohammad is disrespectful and forbidden. Many feel that such disrespect should be punished with death. My friends at Charlie Hebdo paid that terrible price, even though they were expressing themselves in what most Europeans consider a free society.
Many of the comedians agreed that the Holocaust is off limits for humor — right before telling some very funny Holocaust jokes (A German officer is trying to sell Jews on boarding the train to Auschwitz by singing the praises of how wonderful it is: “Auschwitz? They should have named it ‘WOWshwitz!”).
One of my favorite Hitler jokes was told to me by one of my closest Jewish friends:
Hitler was famously a vegetarian and a tee-totaler (this is true).
Q: Why did Adolph Hitler never drink?
A: It made him mean.
I got into the most trouble for an album cover I created back in 1981 for Rhino Records. The LP was entitled BeatleSongs. It did not contain any songs written by the Beatles; it was a collection of songs about the Beatles. I decided the cover should be a cross section of Beatles fans at a Beatlemania convention. I felt it would be incomplete if I didn’t include the fan who actually “collected” one of the Beatles, so standing far left is Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s assassin.
You might have missed this other visual Christmas/crucifixion joke of mine. Here it is. You can be choose to be offended or you can laugh.
I hope you laugh.
Friends, fans — What do you think?