The Scandal of the Cross

It’s Easter weekend, and French vandals armed with hammers have given further reason for contemplating the crucifixion, or at least its representation. This past Palm Sunday, a group of young men masked by sunglasses wreaked havoc at an art exhibition entitled “I Believe in Miracles,” which comprises work collected by art dealer Yvon Lambert, in whose Avignon gallery the show is on display.

The vandals mainly targeted Immersion (Piss Christ), a now-iconic 1987 Cibachrome photograph by artist and former Catholic Andres Serrano depicting a plastic crucifix immersed in the artist’s urine. Guards at the gallery were unable to prevent the attackers from assaulting the photo—its protective plexiglass shield was smashed by a hammer and apparently scored by a sharp object, possibly an ice pick. The vandals managed to escape, shouting “Vive Dieu!” (“Long live God!”).

In a provocative move, the museum will keep the fragmented piece on display, “so that the public can appreciate on its own the violence of the barbarous acts that were committed.” This incident marks the latest, and perhaps most spectacular, in a line of attacks on the image.

Piss Christ, as the photo is commonly referred to, was among the first shots fired (or first casualties suffered, depending on your perspective) in the culture wars of Reagan-era America. In 1989, Republican senator Jesse Helms denounced the photo, characterizing Serrano as “not an artist” but a “jerk.” Not to be outdone in zealous outrage, Alphonse D’Amato took to the senate floor to tear up a copy of the maligned image, using it as part of a case for restrictions on NEA funding. Attacks eventually extended to prints of the photo itself (it was created in an edition of ten); it was first vandalized in 1997, in Australia, amidst attempts by the Catholic Church to have the photo banned from a show at the National Gallery in Victoria. Then, in 2007, neo-Nazis “ransacked” an exhibition of Serrano’s work in Sweden.

The most recent assault may have been spurred in part by Civitas, a lobby group that, as their website puts it, seeks to make France a “cité Catholique.” The Guardian reports that Civitas “launched an online petition and mobilized other fundamentalist groups” in opposition to the exhibition of Serrano’s photo; Christian protesters numbering about 1,000 commenced a march through Avignon, ending at the gallery. (Lambert and others at the gallery reported that they had been subject to “extremist harassment” by right-wing Christian groups.) Meanwhile, Jean-Pierre Cattenoz, Avignon’s “staunchly conservative” archbishop, has pronounced Serrano’s photo “odious,” demanding that it be removed from the gallery.

Transgression No Longer Shocking?

Among the marching protestors last week was a regional councillor for the National Front, the far-right nationalist group established by conservative politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. To be sure, this most recent scandal around Piss Christ is happening against a charged political backdrop in “secular” France, where religion is playing a central role in the political theater. Coming on the heels of the recent banning of burqas in public, the assault on the photo has been characterized as a response to Nicolas Sarkozy’s public elevation of the “Christian heritage of France,” which some see as his pandering to the Christian far-right. Gallery director Eric Mézil claims that the protests at the exhibition revealed “a Catholic fringe [that] wanted to take the president at his word, with extremely violent appeals.”

Adding to the fray, as The Huffington Post reports, “far-right Christian activists” affiliated with the General Alliance Against Racism and for the Respect of the French and Christian Identity are “taking the Collection Lambert to court… to try to have the crucifix photograph removed from the exhibit.” The group claims the image “insults and injures Christians at the heart of their faith.”

Such outraged, even violent, reactions to the photo challenge Eric Felten’s claim, in the Wall Street Journal, that transgressive art has “diminishing returns.” Writing in response to the recent outcry over the display of David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Felten suggests that transgressive artists “don’t have the impact they imagine, and soon may have no impact at all.” In support of his position, he quotes philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who has asserted that “perversion is no longer subversive,” and that “transgressive excess loses its shock value.”

Causing Offense

There’s probably something to such claims. And yet, as the Palm Sunday vandals have made clear, Piss Christ, though nearly a quarter-century old, maintains the power to shock, outrage, and scandalize at least some segments of society, even as it is embraced as an icon of free expression by others. To understand the continuing power of Piss Christ, it is necessary to consider the piece itself, including in its newly destroyed form, for its scandal—from the Greek skandalon, to offend or to make stumble—is multifaceted and complicated, crossing religion, politics, and art, and producing what Paul Ricoeur referred to as a “conflict of interpretations.” Without attempting (or desiring) to resolve this conflict, I want to parse out some of the multiple meanings of this scandalous, fragmented crucifix image. As we will see, Piss Christ is an iconoclastic icon—something like what Bruno Latour has described with the term “iconoclash”: a damaged image before which “one does not know, one hesitates, one is troubled by an action for which there is now way to know, without further inquiry, whether it is destructive or constructive.”

Theologians refer to the “scandal of the cross” in recalling the gruesome physical tortures afflicted on the vulnerable, all-too-human body of Jesus in the crucifixion. Though the scandal of the cross is often evoked in theologies of atonement, in the present context, the scandal refers more to fragmentation—both literal and metaphorical—than to at-one-ment; the Piss Christ on display in Avignon is a smashed stumbling block to any univocal interpretation. Like the sacred itself—at once holy and cursed, pure and impure—the photo is fraught with ambivalence and ambiguity.

For instance, without wanting to commit “the intentional fallacy” (assigning privilege to the artist’s stated or perceived intentions), it’s worth noting Serrano’s own conflicting interpretations of Piss Christ. Soon after making the photo, Serrano, who claims to be “drawn to the aesthetics of the Church,” described the power of the piece in terms of its visual beauty; it is, after all, a gorgeous image, with its auratic lighting and infusion of saturated amber hues.

Later, however, Serrano adopted a prophetic tone, arguing that Piss Christ was intended to re-sacralize bodily fluids that had been denigrated by the Church. Emphasizing the dual nature of Christ as God and human, Serrano sought to recuperate the fully human side of Jesus. “The Church is obsessed with the body and blood of Christ,” he observed—and yet, the institution’s tendency is to repress the body’s messy, porous corporeality. “I attempt to personalize this tension in institutional religion by revising the way in which body fluids are idealized.”

On the other hand, Serrano does not want to “purify” the fluids he re-sacralizes; rather, by incorporating milk, urine, semen, and other excreta into his work, he uses abjection as objection. The gesture of dunking a plastic crucifix in urine is a critical use of bodily dejecta heightened by the strategically offensive, scatological title; Serrano offers a vitriolic critique of what he takes to be the Church’s profiteering trinketization of Christianity.

For Serrano and those of like mind, Piss Christ is not in any straightforward way sacrilege (a violation of holy things) nor is it simply blasphemy (ridiculing or transgressing that which has been consecrated, set apart for holy purposes). Rather, in his juxtapositions of the abject and the holy, Serrano offers a theological vision that at once recuperates the corporeality of Jesus and in the same gesture corrects the erring ways of the Church. Piss Christ has therefore been embraced by some as genuinely religious art, “bordering on the iconic” (as Damien Casey has suggested). The scandalous nature of the photo itself is double: it recalls the ignominy of the crucifixion by associating the cross with bodily dejecta, and it strikes against an institution that has “idealized” that body in kitschy, saleable artifacts.

Sacred Surpluses

But the Palm Sunday attack on the image further complicates matters, bringing into relief still other competing notions of the sacred, and highlighting Piss Christ as a pivotal artifact within what David Chidester calls a political economy of the sacred, that is, “the ways in which the sacred is produced, circulated, engaged, and consumed.” In defacing the photo, the French vandals, we can surmise, sought to reveal the profanity of Piss Christ. They recognized the photo not as a Christian icon, but an icon of “what many modernists hold authoritative and sacred—freedom of expression.” If the photo is taken to be sacrilegious, a violation of the sacred, then defacing it amounts to a kind of “counter-desecration” intent on revealing the profane, merely earthly and human, origin of the “sacred” values of modernism. Yet, if the attackers are associated with the far-right Christian groups discussed above, it is clear that the transcendent authority in whose name they believe themselves to be acting is also enmeshed in worldly issues of political power.

Interpretations of Piss Christ could be further multiplied and their entanglements further elaborated. But we can leave off with one final look at the photo as it now stands in Avignon, like a reliquary holding its own sacred fragments. In their iconoclastic fervor, the vandals have in some way enhanced the power of the image they sought to deface. The image (and the artist whose hands wrought it) will undoubtedly enjoy increased cultural cache as a result of the assault. But looking at the modified image suggests something further. The shape of the smashed glass and scoring describe a curious perimeter around the cross, with the cracks emanating from the face of Christ appearing like a wildly thorny diadem giving way to a jagged halo. In violently defacing an image of the figure they would claim to adore, the vandals reveal the sacred power of images, their ability to incite endless conflicts of interpretation, at once productive and destructive—a scandal no doubt beyond what the perpetrators would have imagined.

The incident at the “I Believe in Miracles” exhibition dramatically evidences the power of images (and of the crucifixion as an image) to continue soliciting fascination and meaning. At least some transgressive art, then, offers not diminishing but increasing returns, miraculous “sacred surpluses” within the ever-turbulent political economy of the sacred. At once pious and blasphemous, abject and elevated, defacing and defaced, transcendent and profane, Serrano’s Piss Christ is a crucifixion that is itself continually resurrected.