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Art vs. Piss
By Steven McCrystal
What is modern art? An abstract thought, a notion, a picture, a painting, an idea, or even a jar of urine for that matter? It is easy to get lost in today’s modern masterpieces so for this article I would like to focus on just one piece of art: Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ.
Modern art seems to promote the idea that absolutely anything can become art, and sometimes it seems that absolutely anything does become art. Some of us are all for modern art, but sometimes artistic expression goes just that little bit too far. When art like Serrano’s Piss Christ travels into the realms of controversy and scandal it becomes a whole different animal. An animal that is put on a slab to be dissected, pulled apart, and chewed upon like it’s some kind of tasteless metaphysical meal. In my opinion our reactions towards modern art are fascinating because modern art often stares right back at us when we pull it apart.
When a piece of controversial modern art is placed in front of a public audience there has to be some sort of reaction to it. Either that reaction is good, bad, or indifferent but sometimes there are exceptions to the rule. One such piece of modern art is called Piss Christ by Andres Serrano—a photograph of a small crucifix with an image of Christ carved on it that has been completely submerged in a jar of urine. At the time, 1989 to be exact, it was an image that provoked an outrage when it was put on public display. The artwork was vandalised on numerous occasions and any gallery that displayed it was bombarded with vicious letters and death threats, as was the artist himself. Only the artist who conceived this idea could answer the question about the motivation behind such a controversial piece. It could be dismissed as a joke since there was no brush strokes, applied tones or textures, or a manmade mixtures of colour. For all intense purposes the artist bought a cheap crucifix, urinated in a cheap jar, dropped Jesus in it, and took a cheap photograph for posterity.
Outrage and animosity—Piss Christ has obviously stimulated a lot of heated opinions over the years. It even found itself on the political map for the American Senate to consider because the National Endowment for the Arts (a government agency) gave Andres Serrano a $15000 grant of taxpayers money to fund his work. Some of the people’s responses which are taken from The Congressional Record—May 18, 1989 highlight the controversy surrounding this piece of art:
“They (meaning letters from the public) express a feeling of shock, of outrage, and anger.”
“How dare you spend our taxpayers’ money on this trash.”
“This so-called piece of art is a deplorable, a despicable display of vulgarity”.
As we can see from this sample list of comments that there was quite a storm whipped up in 1989 condemning Serrano’s work as rubbish. Personally, I find it fascinating that this level of animosity was created for such a simple piece. After all it is just an insignificant collection of garbage thrown into a jar.
One quote from the online magazine Ricochet states: “Today, what’s astonishing about Piss Christ is not its vulgarity or shock-value; it is a completely mundane work of “art” which has aged as well as a cheap wine spritzer”. This astute observation by Ricochet magazine is as close to the truth about this particular piece of art as we, the public, can get. The critical message found in the observation questions some of the fundamental principles of art itself: what is it, is it art, and will it be fashionable to hang it on my wall in twenty years’ time?
But are we missing the point? Is there any substance to the artist’s gesture? There must be. Why else would it provoke such an emotionally charged reaction from so many devout followers of Christ? A single piece of art like Piss Christ can shape or shake the world. It all depends on the impact of the idea. It could be argued that this particular piece of art was a work of genius because of the reaction the public had to it. The piece itself seems to have questioned some of the fundamental teachings from the Christian faith like forgive and forget, turn the other cheek, and thou shall not kill. The scandal surrounding this work of art would have generated a greater interest in the photograph which could also be the work of a genius. A quick ponder always leads me to the conclusion that there is no such thing as bad publicity, well maybe there is, but it’s all just a matter of perspective. It is ironic that the fundamental religious sects who were determined to remove the photograph from history have given it its own place in history. Which is of course the work of a genius.
Although, it is difficult to find a positive quote about Piss Christ as such but there is one that tackles the piece of art as a piece of art. It comes from Lucy Leppard—art critic--Los Angeles Times: “[It’s a] darkly beautiful photographic image… the small wood and plastic crucifix becomes virtually monumental as it floats, photographically enlarged, in a deep rosy glow that is both ominous and glorious.”—(1990). It is refreshing to see that someone has taken the time to think about the photograph as a work of art, and not as a piece of religious blasphemy.
Of course, the only person that really knows what he was thinking about when Piss Christ was conceived is the creator himself. As far as its creator goes he is quoted in The Guardian newspaper as saying: “At the time I made Piss Christ, I wasn’t trying to get anything across.” And “In hindsight, I’d say Piss Christ is a reflection of my work, not only as an artist, but as a Christian.” It could be argued that the artist fluked it. That there was no subversive motivation, there was no subversive intent, and there was definitely no subversive blasphemy emanating from camp Serrano. There was only an idea. One simple idea.
In conclusion—I have to say that as an artist myself I’m jealous of Andres Serrano’s idea because it propelled him into notoriety, it enhanced his artistic career, and it is a challenging piece of work. I would have to agree with Lucy Lippard in her appraisal of Serrano’s Piss Christ when she was describing the image so romantically. When I look at the image I find myself drawn into the microcosm of possibilities contained in the photograph. The image of Christ almost looks three dimensional because of the curved circumference of the jar, and the angle the photograph was taken at. The semi opaque fluid gives the impression of an almost ethereal presence within the jar itself, and the moody red glow could almost represent the diluted blood of Christ. Piss Christ is for all intense purposes a very powerful and emotive piece but it still is what it is: a cheap plastic crucifix, a cheap glass jar, a cheap photograph, and some free piss thrown in for good measure. It has to be art. Don’t you agree?