Saturday, August 29, 2015

Andres Serrano And "Piss Christ"

I have all sorts of mixed feelings about Serrano and "Piss Christ," his photograph which in 1987 was the pretext for Jesse Helms to raise a fuss, because Serrano had gotten some Federal grant money. On the one hand I resent Serrano because he got more grant money than I ever did just by putting a crucifix in a jar, pissing in the jar and taking a snapshot; on the other hand I see his point about referring to the original meaning of the crucifix and how that meaning has been lost: here's Serrano in a 2014 Huffington Post interview, talking about "Piss Christ" and the public reaction to it:

"The only message is that I'm a Christian artist making a religious work of art based on my relationship with Christ and The Church. The crucifix is a symbol that has lost its true meaning; the horror of what occurred. It represents the crucifixion of a man who was tortured, humiliated and left to die on a cross for several hours. In that time, Christ not only bled to dead, he probably saw all his bodily functions and fluids come out of him. So if "Piss Christ" upsets people, maybe this is so because it is bringing the symbol closer to its original meaning."

I get that. And that -- the concept of using bodily fluids to remind people what the crucifix actually means -- is about all that I find anything close to exciting about "Piss Christ." (And like most people who've ever heard of Serrano, I'm sure, this is the only art of his I've seen pictures of or read descriptions of.)

On the 3rd hand I'm an atheist who's very tired of Christianity, and in the very next words in Serrano's answer in that interview, he provides an example of one sort of the Christian things I'm tired of:

"There was a time prior to the 17th century when the only important art, the only art that mattered, was religious art. After that, there were very few contemporary art pieces that were considered both art and religious, and "Piss Christ" is one of them."

*sigh* *thumb and forefinger to bridge of nose* Andres, in Western civilization, there was a long, long time before the 17th century when Christian art was pretty much the only sort of art which artists were allowed to make, and definitely the only sort of art for which most artists could hope to get paid. It's sort of ironic when a 20th- and 21st century artist such as you, who sticks his neck out for freedom of artistic expression, speaks longingly of bygone eras in which there was so very little such freedom, when Christians did their very best to destroy all of the art of some non-Christian cultures, art which often enough was sacred to those cultures, when anyone who either pissed on a crucifix or took a photograph of anything would be first tortured and then burned alive as a witch.

Who knows what great non-Christian art Western artists might have made between the 5th and 17th centuries if they'd simply been allowed to? So, phooey on your good old days of Christianity, Andres!

And there are still other hands.

So, is "Piss Christ" good art? It raised Jesse Helm's already-too-high blood pressure. Therefore: good art. (Also: surely, the publicity from Helm's criticism surely did more for Serrano's career than any other single act, including the big fat government grant which outraged Helms and which I resent.)

But no, honestly: not so great. I've never wanted to have a print of it on my wall. I've never stared fascinated at a picture of Serrano's one world-famous picture. I get the mild conceptual stimulation referred to above, and that's about all that the photograph has ever done for me.

But still, I'm pro-art, and even the worst art is better than the best of other things to which people devote their entire lives, like fracking or junk mail or the GOP.

To me "Piss Christ" is neither the best nor the worst art, to me it's meh art, which means I'll stand up for Serrano if he's being attacked by right-wing politicians, but otherwise, yawn.


  1. Divorced from its symbolism and context, I think it's a beautiful photo all by itself. You may not agree with that, but perhaps we can both agree that good or bad, it's a significant and noteworthy work of art.

    1. No, I still think it's a meh work of art. But if you think it's beautiful, apparently you're not the only one, and there's no reason that you should let the opinion of a grown man who calls himself a monkey ruin your aesthetic experience. Thanks for your comment.