The sculpture, which is a part of a traveling exhibition that critiques capitalism, has led to massive protests in Haifa, Israel.
The Haifa Museum of Art in Haifa, Israel has catapulted the city into chaos with the showcasing of the exhibition “Sacred Goods.” This exhibition includes a life-sized sculpture of a crucified Ronald McDonald by Finnish artist Jani Leinonen titled “McJesus.” Through a tangled argument between freedom of expression and respect for various religious groups, the Haifa Museum has recently announced its plans to remove this controversial piece.
Alongside several other provocative works, including renderings of Jesus and the Virgin Mary as Barbie dolls, “McJesus” plays an active role in conveying the intent of the exhibition. “Sacred Goods” aims to challenge the relationship between capitalism and religion, using many religious images as a lens to view consumer values. Leinonen’s sculpture is a particularly poignant evaluation of this relationship, intending to critique the alleged worship and cult-like adherence to capitalism.
The minority population of Christian citizens in Israel rallied against what protestor Nicola Adbo calls a “disgraceful sculpture.” Riots broke out across the city in anger with the museum. Three police officers were injured as protestors tried to force their way into the building, and two people were arrested on suspicion of trying to firebomb the museum. These protesters were dispersed with the use of stun grenades and tear gas.
Although protestors called for the removal of “McJesus” as well as some other controversial pieces, museum director Nissim Tal argued, “If we take the art down, the next day we’ll have politicians demanding we take other things down, and we’ll end up only with colorful pictures of flowers in the museum.” Tal, as well as many supporters of the inclusion of the sculpture, debate that art is intended to cause controversy and make viewers think. Simply removing everything that is not easy to swallow will only promote homogeneous thought and prevent divergences of opinion.
Another factor in the controversy surrounding “McJesus” is the fact that Leinonen has asked for the piece to be taken down as well. He claimed to have asked for the piece to be removed from the museum in September in solidarity with Palestine. An avid supporter of the Palestinian cause, Leinonen wanted to boycott the museum as part of a Palestinian-led movement with the goal to force Israel to change policies towards Palestine.
Ultimately, the Haifa Museum has chosen to remove the “McJesus” sculpture after several weeks of protests. This was announced by the mayor of Haifa, Einat Kalish Rotem, who apologized for the “aggravation to the Christian community” caused by the sculpture. No date has been set for the sculpture’s removal, but the piece was on loan from a Finnish museum to which it will be returned.
The controversy in Haifa raises questions about the role of art in culture and the obligation of museums to protect artists’ rights to create challenging commentary. While the conflict in Haifa is notably affected by many factors, including underlying religious tensions already prevalent in the country, the dispute about “McJesus” represents the essence of what art is capable of saying. Without artists who push the boundaries of normalcy and acceptability, society cannot progress past the problems they can identify. If artists are not protected and allowed to explore controversial issues, their freedom of expression is taken and the public is left ignorant of alternate perspectives.