Twenty-five years later, and an artwork’s power to enflame is undiminished.
Beginning on the 27th of this month, the Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery in Manhattan will open an exhibit titled Body and Spirit: Andres Serrano 1987–2012. The exhibit, which runs for a month, features a range of works from the controversial artist, including the infamous Piss Christ (1987), a work that consists of a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in what is supposedly a jar of the artist’s own urine. The gallery’s press release describes the work in the following terms:
Piss Christ is a potent work that engages the viewer on both a visual and intellectual level. Unassumingly and with no intention, it has also served as an unwitting lightning rod in media and politics, challenging the values, perception, and definition of art. Piss Christ, ultimately, has turned into a controversial symbol of the freedom of expression and the ability of art to catalyze significant change in society.
It’s of course a bit disingenuous to claim that Piss Christ is an “unwitting lightning rod” in the cultural landscape. Serrano himself has noted that the work is “meant to question the whole notion of what is acceptable and unacceptable,” and, let’s face it, anyone who deliberately submerges a crucifix in urine for public display does so well aware of the outrage that it may cause.
In 1989 right-wing Christian senators, including Jesse Helms, attacked the work, and it was vandalized in 1997 while on display in Australia at the National Gallery of Victoria. Just last year a group Roman Catholic fundamentalists, bent on an anti-blasphemy campaign, took hammers to Piss Christ in Avignon.
Innocence of Christians
Tomorrow’s exhibition of the work has already drawn criticism from religious leaders and politicians. Bill Donohue, self-styled spokesman for conservative Catholicism, has denounced the exhibition on the grounds that “decent people know it is unacceptable.” For Donohue, Piss Christ and its exhibition make perfectly clear the bias of the liberal elite, for whom “anti-Christian art is not only acceptable, it is laudatory.” Protests and press conferences to follow.
Other affronted parties have invoked comparisons to the decidedly unartistic “Innocence of Muslims,” the now-blockbuster YouTube trailer that triggered protest in Libya and Egypt.
Commenting to Fox News, Staten Island Representative Michael Grimm has called the work a “deplorable piece,” one that is as “offensive” to Christians as ‘Innocence of Muslims’ is to “the Islamic world.” Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the comparison has provided opportunity to emphasize the supposed moral high ground that Christians occupy over Muslims when it comes to material deemed offensive or blasphemous. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Council, told Fox News that the two incidents shore up “the contrast between Islam and Christianity.” “You don’t have to plead with Christians not to riot and burn and storm buildings simply because they are offended,” Perkins said. “That’s the difference. That’s why Christianity moves nations forward and Islam moves nation backwards.”
Although the Times’ Nicholas Kristof has taken a seemingly more measured approach, he still stresses that Piss Christ has not incited violence among Christians. Indeed, even though Kristof takes the tense political situations in Northern Africa and the Middle East into account in evaluating responses to “Innocence of Muslims,” he still finds it necessary to emphasize that, “for a self-described ‘religion of peace,’ Islam does claim a lot of lives.”
Never mind Christianity’s less-than-stellar track record with regard to violence, or the fact that Piss Christ has actually been subject to violent attacks in the past. A crucial difference between “Innocence of Muslims” and Piss Christ is that the former is deliberately and unambiguously offensive—though to recognize as much is by no means to condone violence.
The issue is not so clear with Piss Christ. The irony is that once we work through the initial shock value of Piss Christ, the image is, in many ways, profoundly Christian, a point that is completely lost in the simplistic and literalistic responses of its vocal detractors. According to The Guardian, Serrano himself has claimed that the photograph should be taken as criticism of the “billion-dollar Christ-for-profit industry” and a “condemnation of those who abuse the teaching of Christ for their own ignoble ends.”
It could be that the failure of critics to recognize as much indicates that Serrano’s criticism hits a little too close to home. Behind the immediate criticism of the work is a theological point, as well. The central claim of Christianity is that, in the incarnation, God became fully human, just like us. I remember buying diapers for my wife’s grandfather in the days leading up to his death. Like countless others facing their demise, he had, at the end of his life, lost the ability to control even the most simplest of bodily functions. If we cannot imagine a urine-soaked cross, then perhaps we have not really understood what it means when Christians claim that God became human. Perhaps Serrano has understood it more than his pious detractors.