Donate

The art of pissing off Christians

By attacking Andres Serrano’s artwork ‘Immersion (Piss Christ)’, French Christian fundamentalists play into the artist’s hands.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

Topics Culture

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Palm Sunday is meant to mark the day Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Christians usually commemorate this day with crosses made from palm leaves or something similar. Last Sunday, however, a group of Catholics, armed with the less than traditional combination of hammers and screwdrivers, decided to mark the beginning of the Passion by storming into an art gallery in the southern French city of Avignon and attacking what they saw as a ‘blasphemous’ art work.

To be fair to these angry young men of God, American artist Andres Serrano’s 1987 work ‘Immersion (Piss Christ)’ is probably not to the taste of many Christians. As hinted at by the title, it’s a photographic image of a crucifix submerged in a jar of Serrano’s own urine. So it’s certainly provocative. And judging by the Lucozade-like hue of Serrano’s wee it is also the work of very sick man – but nothing that a litre of Perrier a day wouldn’t cure, I’m sure.

Of course, the Christians upset by Serrano’s work are not bothered by his hydration regime; they’re bothered by what looks like a mockery of their faith. The bishop of Vaucluse Jean-Pierre Cattenoz recently described ‘Piss Christ’ as ‘odious’ and ‘trash’. The abbot of Cacqueray quickly joined in the chorus of condemnation by announcing that when looking upon ‘the piss-yellow’ of ‘this blasphemous work’ ‘we [Catholics] don’t see yellow, we see red!’. And right on cue, this is precisely what a few protesters did see last Sunday.


Immersion (Piss Christ),
by Andres Serrano.

They wouldn’t be the first to get pissed off with ‘Piss Christ’. Since Serrano first exhibited it as part of a series of depictions of religious objects immersed in a variety of fluids in the late 1980s, ‘Piss Christ’ has repeatedly been fluttering its eye-lashes at the potentially outraged. Its exhibition rarely passes off without someone having a hack at it, as happened in Australia in 1997 and in Sweden in 2007. In 1989, ‘Piss Christ’ even made it to the floor of the US Congress, due in part to the fact that Serrano, via the National Endowment for the Arts, was a recipient of $15,000 worth of state funding. New York senator Alphonse D’Amato was so annoyed that he tore up an image of Serrano’s urinated profanity. And North Carolina senator and good ol’ Southern boy Jesse Helms was moved to declare: ‘I do not know Mr Andres Serrano, and I hope I never meet him because he is not an artist, he is a jerk.’ Someone should probably have pointed out to Helms that the two are far from mutually exclusive.

If the outbreaks of all too predictable outrage have often been stupidly insult-laden, their eventual results are frequently and seriously censorious. Following D’Amato’s and Helms’ denunciations, for instance, the National Endowment for the Arts was henceforth proscribed from funding works that ‘denigrate the objects of beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion’ – a blasphemy law that is no less illiberal for being so multi-faith.

Elsewhere, as in Avignon last weekend, the silencing of Serrano’s right to free expression has taken more direct forms. While such actions come without explicit state-sanction – French culture minister Frédéric Mitterand condemned the recent attack – they are fostered implicitly by a state-supported culture in which to be offended is to have the right to silence (and punish) the offender. Take the case of French comedian Dieudonné who, as Nathalie Rothschild reported on spiked, was fined €10,000 for ‘public anti-Semitic insults’ in 2009 after inviting the revisionist historian and Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson on stage during a stand-up comedy show in Paris. Or, more recently, take the furore that followed fashion designer John Galliano’s drunken, anti-Semitic outburst in February, an inebriated, private speech act that eventually saw him fired by top fashion house Dior. That the Catholic equivalents of Brian Sewell decided to take an image of Serrano’s bladder contents into their own tooled-up hands is as much a product of a culture of vehement offence-taking as it is of some especially Catholic zeal.

Serrano should of course be free to express himself as he sees fit. Moreover, he should be free to mock and ridicule even the most deeply held beliefs, no matter who might be offended. And likewise, critics should be free to express themselves, without silencing Serrano, as they choose, whether that’s by arguing that his ‘Piss Christ’ is shit art, slamming his fin de jetée decadence, or indeed simply not bothering going to his exhibitions. After all, regardless of how devout some Christians are, only a miniscule minority have felt the need to turn up and do a spot of impromptu DIY on Serrano’s photographed emissions. In fact, ‘Piss Christ’ was exhibited in France before, at the Pompidou centre in 2007, and absolutely nothing happened.

This is the other side to art like Serrano’s, however. Without offence-taking, without controversy, it loses something of its meaning. His provocative intent goes unrealised if no reaction is provoked. And make no mistake, Serrano intends to provoke. In interviews he may play the ingénue. ‘My goal in the end is to make beautiful objects from unorthodox materials’, he said in 1998 following controversy in Australia. ‘I was a bit naive’, he continued. ‘I didn’t expect such reactions. I was surprised by the hatred that it caused.’ But no one calls a work ‘Piss Christ’ and expects Christians not to be riled. For the pious, Christ is God’s form on Earth; he is not some regular, eating-and-pissing Joe. Piss Christ’s success, such as it is, depends as much upon the outrage of the faithful as it does upon the praise of the heathen.

In this regard, ‘Piss Christ’ tells us something of that desperate, frequently incontinent desire to shock so typical of modern art in general. And it’s got nothing to with the convention-smashing avant-gardes of old. The attempt to create art in a world bereft of the old external sources of meaning and authority, so typical of a modernist enterprise, whether one thinks of Picasso or Braque or Chagall, has lost all impetus. That loss of meaning (and the artistic struggle for its redemption), so palpable in someone like Klee or Kandinsky, is no longer an occasion for mourning; its a cause for playful celebration. Art is no longer felt to be estranged from sources of authority, religious or otherwise, it is liberated as art. The good faith of people in the world, their sincerity, their cherished beliefs, indeed their preconceptions about what art should be, provides raw material to be reworked by the bad faith of the artist.

So now, rather than struggle for meaning, the men with irony in the soul and bad faith in their work are drawn almost inexorably towards ridiculing the good faith of others, and that includes those who believe Jesus was closer to God than bladder-bound man. Belief, sentiment, indeed anything which people hold to be true or valuable, anything that people might believe in, is just so much taboo-like fodder for the shock-seeking. It’s as if the good faith of the public is there to be scandalised by the inherent bad faith of the artist.

That’s why so often if a work of art doesn’t shock someone, it doesn’t work, and if it does, it’s a raging success – a copy of ‘Piss Christ’ was sold for over £200,000 in 2008. So, by attempting to vandalise a piece of vandalism, by profaning a profanity, the Catholic protesters inadvertently complete Serrano’s work. A thin-skinned culture of vehement offence-taking is manna from heaven for the shock-craving artist. The Avignon gallery curator Eric Mezil said damaged works would be left on display so the public could ‘appreciate the barbarity committed by extremists’. As such, Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ can now stand as a mockery not just of faith, but of those with faith.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture

Comments

Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today