Club Cybelle
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Club Cybelle

In Defense of “Piss Christ”

Photo by Andres Serrano. Used with permission of the artist’s partner via email.

NOTE: A version of piece was originally written not long after the Charlie Hebdo Massacre and has been revised for clarity and conciseness.

For the longest time, I ignored Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” I’m not even a Christian, but the idea of using urine in art seemed so disgusting to me. I was willing to accept Ana Mendieta’s use of chicken blood, but urine, that was just a bridge too far. However, in light of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I was willing to reexamine my thoughts on censorship in art, and if there was more to this photo than mere provocation.

The most blatant form of censorship came from The Associated Press. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre of 2015, the AP removed the image of “Piss Christ” from their site. Since they already blurred the Hebdo cartoons, many Christians, such as The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney, saw a double standard in whose sensitivities were being heard. They were far from the first to bend to political correctness, but a news organization to engage in such actions is shameful. Works of art, especially provocative ones like “Piss Christ”, need to be shown in order to be properly talked about, and it’s quite difficult to debate a photo if you can’t see it. AP defended their censorship to Politico thusly, “It’s been our policy for years that we refrain from moving deliberately provocative images. It is fair to say we have revised and reviewed our policies since 1989.” Revisions that include censorship can hardly be called journalistic or ethical. Imagine if the photos of the My Lai Massacre or Abu Gharib were suppressed for being, “too provocative.”

Not everyone has seen “Piss Christ”, but nearly everyone has heard a description of it. It usually comes along the lines of “a crucifix in a jar of urine.” With such a crude description, it’s no wonder so few are interested in appreciating “Piss Christ” as an artistic work. When I saw the photo for myself, however, I was entranced. Serrano took something faraway, the spiritual, and made it human. Christ, colored in amber, trapped within the glass, glowing in divine light beneath our bodily excess. That is not a desecration of the Eucharist, but a clear testament to this man’s intimate faith. Serrano had pissed into the glass with as much fervor as Christ sweat from the pore in Gethsemane.

The reasonable, but still reactionary disgust to the urine is what prevents people from understanding this point. This disgust is rooted in our human desire to separate ourselves from animals, as food journalist Michael Pollan wrote in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “So much of the human project is concerned with distinguishing ourselves from beasts that we seem strenuously to avoid things that remind us that we are beasts too — -animals that urinate, defecate, copulate, bleed, die, stink, and decompose,” (357). By putting Christ in urine, Serrano acknowledges that the divinity of Christ only existed within a body as human as yours and just as animal. As art critic Jonathan Jones noted in The Guardian,

“Piss Christ works well as a modern work of religious art. I don’t know if the curators of the Vatican museum have considered buying a print, but it possesses a richly traditional dimension. The passion of Christ has always been associated with bodily fluids — it is true that artists traditionally stressed blood rather than urine, but they scarcely stinted on the revulsion of Christ’s fleshly death.”

“Piss Christ” also received an unlikely defense from Sister Wendy Beckett, a Catholic nun who was also an art historian for the BBC. Bill Moyers of PBS asked her if she felt offended by the photo, to which she replied,

“Well, actually, no, because I thought he was saying, in a rather simplistic, uh, magaziney type of way, that this is what we are doing to Christ. We’re not treating him with reverence. His great sacrifice is not used. We live very vulgar lives. We put Christ in a bottle of urine in practice. It was a very admonitory work. Not a great work, I wouldn’t want to go on looking at it once one had, to one’s distress seen it once, but I think to call it blasphemous is really rather begging the question. It could be, it could not be. It’s what you make of it, and I could make something that could make me feel, a deep desire to, to reverence the death of Christ more, by the suggestion that this is what in practice the world is doing.”

As Beckett suggests, “Piss Christ” is not so much an inversion of faith, as it is faith in its highest form. Serrano himself has said about as much in his reasoning for the photo’s creation,

“For me, Piss Christ was always a work of art and an act of devotion. I was born and raised a Catholic and have been a Christian all my life. As a child and especially as I was preparing for my Holy Communion and confirmation, I often heard the nuns speak reverentially of the “body and blood of Christ.” They also said that it was wrong to idolize representations of Christ since these were only representations and not holy objects themselves.

“My work was, in part, a comment on that paradox. I am neither a blasphemer nor “anti-Christian,” as some have called me, and I stand by my work as an artist and as a Christian. Where the photograph has ignited spirited debate, that has been a good thing. Perhaps it reminds some people to question what we unthinkingly fetishize (and thereby often minimize) in lieu of pondering seriously what the crucifix actually symbolizes: the unimaginably torturous death of Christ, the Son of God.”

Of course, the fact that Serrano imbibed such deep meaning into “Piss Christ” didn’t make it any less provocative. Nor were all interested in tolerating such provocations, as Serrano warned, “times like these show us the true limits of people’s taste for debate, even in an ostensibly free society.” Instead of debate, he suffered backlash from high places,

“The first stirrings of trouble came while the traveling exhibition was on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, when a local newspaper published a letter from a reader complaining about Piss Christ. The letter caught the attention of Donald Wildmon, the head of the American Family Association (AFA), a right-wing fundamentalist Christian organization, which proceeded to mount a campaign against the photograph, petitioning Congress to denounce the NEA. Republican Senators Alfonse D’Amato and Jesse Helms picked up the gauntlet. They led the ensuing fight to try to defund the NEA-a seemingly perennial effort renewed by Capitol Hill Republicans since the Reagan years. It marked the beginning of what has since become known in the United States as the culture wars.”

The Guardian reported that when the work was on tour in Avignon, France, Civitas, a lobby group in that intends to re-Christianize the country, mobilized fiercely against the picture. Nearly 1000 Christians marched against the photo, and the next day, men in sunglasses smashed the plexiglass covering the picture and slashed the the photograph with a sharp object. Eric Mezil, the director of the gallery displaying “Piss Christ” at the time, decided to continue to exhibit the damaged work, if only to show, in his words, “what barbarians can do.” Barbarians, indeed. The intimate relationship between the artist and their art is a sacred one. For someone to invade that space, and mutilate your piece as crudely as these monsters have, is a deep violation of the soul. It is indeed a tragedy.

Being a true global citizen means exposure to ideas that you may find offensive. We all get offended, I do regularly. Criticizing what offends us isn’t the same as censorship, and doing so can spark worthwhile discussions. Oftentimes, nuance gets lost in the debate. Those who accuse the Charlie Hebdo artists as racists, don’t always mention their rather poignant cartoons, like the one of Muhammad getting beheaded by ISIS. “Je Suis Charlie” shouldn’t be so much about the cartoons themselves, but about defending their right to be drawn, like the Ahmed Merabet selflessly did. Likewise, all artists everywhere must defend Andres Serrano and his work against the barbarians of the world, as cartoonists did in solidarity for Charlie Hebdo. We were too late to save “Piss Christ”, but perhaps, this damaged Savior, attacked by his own followers, will stand as a warning of what happens when the good stay silent. I’ll let Serrano himself have the last word, as his arguments speak far better than mine, (emphasis added)

“Artists often work in mysterious ways, using unorthodox materials and ideas to challenge convention and put hard and necessary questions to powerful people and traditions. We don’t always want to hear what they have to say. But a free, tolerant society needs its artists and writers. And they must be free to live, work and speak without fear of censorship, attack or murder. Artists look ahead and plot the future. They map the culture and tell us where we stand. In doing so, artists are a free society’s greatest advocates and its best bulwarks. Their triumphs are civilization’s triumphs.”

Bibliography

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Natural History of the Four Meals. New York: Penguin Press, 2006. pg 357. Print.

Originally published at http://sansuthecat.blogspot.com, but has been since revised from its original publication.

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Sansu the Cat

Sansu the Cat

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I write about art, life, and humanity. M.A. Japanese Literature. B.A. Spanish & Japanese. email: sansuthecat@yahoo.com