I suppose you could call it “Kermit-Christ.” An equally odd but more matter of fact description would be “the crucified frog.” Take your pick.
At issue is a composition by the late German artist Martin Kippenberger, now displayed in a museum in the city of Bolzano, nestled in Italy’s South Tyrol. Neither the German title “Zuerst die Fuesse” or its equally nonsensical English translation “First the Feet” do justice to the deep strangeness of the work: a garishly green crucified frog, complete with a loin cloth and lolling tongue, holding a beer stein in one hand and an egg in the other. The image has become a mini-internet sensation. But it also has drawn condemnation from Pope Benedict XVI and a local Italian political leader went on hunger strike to protest its display. Such pious protests met equally pious pontifications about artistic freedom. Both sides missed the joke, and the point.
To defend the Pope’s characterization, Kermit-Christ is blasphemous in the most literal theological sense of attributing divine attributes to something not divine. But Kermit-Christ is perhaps most simply a burlesque that mocks the redemptive and regenerative elements of the crucifix’s theology with images of a beer stein and an egg. Kermit-Christ’s detractors should also remember that the traditional Catholic crucifix can often evoke dismay, even revulsion, with is its seemingly macabre imagery. Of course, the crucifix’s power comes from re-presenting and transforming images associated with suffering and death. Kermit-Christ, the crucified-frog, draws upon this dynamic, apparently so effectively that some would consider it dangerous enough to be banned.
For their part, defenders of “Kermit-Christ” have positioned themselves in long line of proponents of blasphemous expression in the service of art and freedom. In the wake of the controversy surrounding cartoons of Muhammad, many earnest journalists and artists took it upon themselves to poke fun at all things religious. Cloaked in platitudes about art and freedom, the point behind all these exercises seemed to be little more than “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” seemingly implying that if one stopped offending religious people, one eventually wouldn’t be allowed to offend them at all. Kermit-Christ, the crucified frog, speaks to this presumably pressing need.
Wherever he is, my sense is that Martin Kippenberger is smiling–and probably holding a beer stein and an egg. That an ironic and narcissistic representational piece can evoke such pious reactions, both disdainful and protective, is the real blasphemy. The intent is to ridicule religious and artistic pretension as two sides of the same coin. Kippenberger perhaps intended “First the Feet” as a joke on himself. The reality, however, is that Kermit-Christ, the Crucified Frog, proves once again that the joke is on us.
Mathew N. Schmalz is associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.