You’ve probably seen the photograph by Andres Serrano before. It’s titled “Piss Christ”, and it caused no little controversy back in the late 1980’s, in part because the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Serrano significant funding for the piece. A bad time for many things, although my wife & I did get married a few hours before 1988. But think of the hair. The fashions. The music. Apart from earlier U2 and then “The Joshua Tree” in 1987 (and our marriage), did much of anything slink out of the ’80’s that you don’t want to pulverize with a large mallet?
There are defenders of the piece. Some say the effect of the light makes a striking image even more striking, while the aesthetes declare that the artist’s principal responsibility is to subvert the bourgeois values, usually religious, of those too obtuse to share the elevated creative and moral sensibilities of the artiste and his cadre. Guess who usually ends up being pissed on, pardon the language? When I discuss this piece in class in the context of what can’t be done by an artist today, I stress to my students that Christians, especially Catholics, can be mocked, ridiculed, and disparaged with little concern for respect or decorum by the offending party. But throw a Koran into a jar of urine? A star of David? A bust of Martin Luther King, Jr.? How many artists do you think would be willing to risk that in the name of their art? Given their normal rhetoric, you would think their courage and social calling would trump anything so bourgeois as a concern not to be criticized, or worse, by moralistic critics.
Back in the ‘80’s I had an idea for a photograph that I thought would make a good point. It would be a crucifixion scene, set in a public place like the ASU campus. Some students would be walking by on their way somewhere (today most would be texting), while others would be sitting on the ground, talking or tanning or reading (texting, probably). Most people would be oblivious to the man hanging on the cross, except for a few people, some pointing and laughing, a few women deeply moved. A sort of commentary on how indifferent most people are to the cross and what it means.
Some art critics, notably Sr. Wendy Beckett, suggested that Serrano was doing something like this. Consider how the crucifix is used in our society. For many it’s simply an ornament worn around their neck, or tattooed somewhere on their body. I once had a cross earring, when I was a 20-year-old punk. Again, the ‘80‘s. I had no respect for the symbol; I liked the shape, I think, and the fact that it was a common thing now being, if not subverted, at least used in a non-religious way. And in a world of punks like this younger, ’80’s me, doesn’t it make sense, Sr. Wendy asked, to draw attention through art to the ways we ignore and insult this most precious and meaningful of Christian symbols? While she didn’t think the work was a notable piece of art, she did appreciate the possibility of seeing it as a suggestion of our indifference and casual blasphemies.
Does this makes sense? Or is this just another crude, blasphemous example of the disrespect shown to Catholics?Share on Facebook