When in 1987 the American artist Andres Serrano exhibited his photograph titled “Piss Christ,” little did he know that it will send seismic waves through the art world and forever change its relationship with U.S. politics.
The photograph was of a cheap plastic crucifix submerged in a bodily fluid that was artist’s own, and its title made it quite clear what that fluid was. On May 18, 1989 Alfonso Domato, the Republican senator from New York, tore up a reproduction of the photograph on the floor of the U.S. Senate, cried in dismay about our lost Christian and family values and some other things of the this-country-is-going-to-hell variety, and swore to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal government agency that was created by an act of U.S. Congress in 1965 to support American artists.
The image, and the political fight that it engendered, catapulted Serrano to fame, and cemented his reputation as a provocateur. None other than the formidable Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes made it a springboard for his phenomenal essay “Art and the Therapeutic Fallacy” in his classic book about the American cultural landscape, Culture of Complaint. Here is how he described Piss Christ, “Serrano wanted to make a sharp, jolting point about two things: first, the degradation of mass religious imagery into kitsch (inescapable in America, as any thoughtful Christian is aware), and second, his resentment of the coercive morality of his own Hispanic-Catholic roots.”
Hughes described Serrano as a “highly conflicted, lapsed Catholic,” so it was a bit disappointing to read in Serrano’s new book “Andres Serrano: Uncensored Photographs” that he has never disavowed Christianity and that the naming of the photograph was simply descriptive. “It wasn’t meant to be blasphemous, sacrilegious or offensive,” said he. I had to reread the entire passage twice and I think that Serrano was simply being coy, because how submersing the most recognizable religious symbol into piss is not blasphemous is beyond me.
Serrano did go on to back up Hugh’s point about the degradation of Christian imagery into kitsch by saying, “If it provokes, if it upsets people, they should think about what the crucifix means. The crucifix, this little object that we’re so familiar with – that we touch and pray to and make t-shirts out of, symbolizes a crucifixion – the crucifixion of Christ.” Hughes took this line of thinking further by dwelling on Easter kitsch, “Last Easter, the local drugstore was selling chocolate crucifixes with a vague lumpish figure of Jesus molded into them: ‘Eat this in memory of Me.’ Why it should be OK for some Americans to eat an image of their Savior and turn it into feces, while other Americans were convulsed at the idea of taking another image of the same Savior and dunking it in urine, seemed a riddle to stop a modern Tocqueville in his tracks. But not in the American heartland, where the religion industry is immune to criticism or doubt.” Indeed.
Serrano has gone on to produce a fair share of confrontational photographs. He proved adept at pushing bigots’ buttons, and his exhibitions have been vandalized by right wing groups on several occasions. He has photographed the members of the Ku Klux Klan, the corpses in morgues (including children), torture, “deviant” sexual behavior, and shit. A well-curated selection of these went on display earlier this year at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, but if you did not get to see it you can get the book and test your levels of tolerance (mine came close to their limits between the pictures of the Ku Klux Klan and shit).
Andres Serrano: Uncensored Photographs (SilvanaEditoriale, distributed in the US by D.A.P. $65) | All images are courtesy of the publisher.