Justifying Offensive Art: For Christians Only
One of the more delicious ironies of the last few weeks is that just as parts of the Muslim world was exploding with rage at a YouTube video (to the point where the president of Egypt suggested to the U.N. that maybe we need to reign in this free speech stuff), along comes a blast from the past in the form of Andres Serrano’s photograph subtly entitled Piss Christ. The 1987 unveiling of this masterwork of deep artistic thinking, funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, resulted in
riots in the streets and the burning down of Greenwich Village lots of protests from Christians, in part because of the offensiveness of the image, but also because of the taxpayer subsidy that went into this, uh, art. The re-emergence of this testimony to modern artistic decadence has provoked some serious chin-pulling at Religion Dispatches from one Hollis Phelps, assistant professor of religion at Mount Olive College in North Carolina:
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.
Uh huh. Not only does this fail to give proper credit to Serrano for being deliberately provocative (which Phelps rightly notes), it’s also the equivalent of intellectual flatulence, the sort of high-toned, portentous-sounding nonsense that people like art gallery flacks crank out without even looking at the item in question.
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.
I can’t understand why anyone would make that comparison. After all, one deeply offended some Muslims’ religious sensibilities, while the other, as Bill Donohue demonstrates, deeply offended some Christians’ religious sensibilities. Other than that, of course, they have nothing in common, since one was made by a hack and the other by an “artist.”
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.”
I wouldn’t have put things the way Tony Perkins does, since he seems to simply ignore the fact that, you know, most Muslims didn’t turn violent, or respond in any way. I don’t think the different reactions say anything about the respective merits of the two religions, given that there are crazies in both (though Christian ones seem, on the whole, a lot more individualistic, not generally able to round up a rent-a-mob when someone burns a picture of Jesus). But Kristof is exactly right—Christians will protest what offends them (remember the picketing of theaters that showed The Last Temptation of Christ?), but Christians don’t generally engage in generalized violence.
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.
Phelps mentions two incidents in which the photo was vandalized, but that just proves the point: it was the photo that was attacked, not Serrano, and not innocent bystanders (or their businesses or homes) who just happened to share the same religion as the creator.
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.
Do you know why Phelps considers the video “deliberately and unambiguously offensive” and not the photo? Because he can come up with a rationalization for the photo that should make it acceptable to anyone, while he can’t come up with anything like that for the video. To wit:
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.”
Right. I could see Serrano’s explanation if he had put a Jim Bakker bobblehead doll in a cup of urine. As it is, it comes off as an after-the-fact justification from someone who, though seeking to provoke, had no idea that he might jeopardize his place at the federal trough as a result. As for Phelps’ statement that “the image is, in many ways, profoundly Christian,” I suppose you could say that about just about anything, if you stretch the meaning of the words to the point where they cease to function as communicative symbols. Sorry to go all Philistine on y’all here, but Piss Christ is as profoundly Christian as flushing a Koran down a toilet is profoundly Muslim.
But given that no college professor worth his salt is capable of recognizing when it’s the right time to stop, Phelps concludes:
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.
Yeah, it’s amazing how an NEA grant can turn an adolescent expression of irreverence no deeper than hocking up a loogy on a church sanctuary carpet can turn one into a deep thinker. I’m sure Andres Serrano was meditating contemplatively on the Incarnation of Our Lord as he filled that jar.
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