Rhett Gérard Poché

A blog devoted to the study of art, art history, and visual literacy.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Art—Part One

I have no respect for artists who intentionally offend for the sake of being offensive and, therefore, deliberately court controversy.  Yet, I am a fan of provocative art.  I love the artistic equivalent of a sucker punch—images that, according to public opinion, are “offensive” and “controversial” because they challenge our most deeply-held beliefs or force us to face difficult truths (or at least the artist’s interpretation of such truths).

I believe intellectual value can be found in most works of art, even in those deemed provocative or downright obscene.  Moreover, if one views a seemingly offensive image with a critical and analytical eye, he or she may actually encounter a meaningful, even enlightening, work of art.

When confronted with offensive images, viewers should discuss and debate rather than light the torches and storm the gates in protest.  Therefore, this post is going to encourage just that—a healthy debate—no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

My Visual Literacy students have been studying (in)famous works of art that are widely criticized as denigrating to religion, especially Christianity.  We discussed the apparent controversies, weighed various points of contention, and debated the claims of obscenity levied against Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and Cosimo Cavallaro’s My Sweet Lord (among others).

In light of this discussion, I would like to encourage my readers to consider the following:

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, photograph, 1987

Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ depicts a plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine.  In 1989, it led the United States Senate to question why the tax-payer funded National Endowment for the Arts granted Serrano $15,000 to create the series of “obscene and blasphemous” photographs of which Piss Christ is a part.  Politicians and cultural watchdogs labeled the image as a denigration of Jesus Christ and an attack on the Christian faith.  Senator Jesse Helms even called Serrano a “jerk” on the Senate floor.

CLICK HERE to read the Congressional Record (Comments on Andres Serrano)—compiled by Julie C. Van Camp, 1997.

CLICK HERE to search Congressional Records of the 101st Congress (1989 to 1990).

The controversy has been ongoing.  Piss Christ was vandalized while on display in 1997 and 2011.   More recently, and without surprise, the image made headlines as part of an exhibition titled Body and Spirit: Andres Serrano, 1987-2012 (Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery, NYC).  The expected calls for protest and boycott ensued.

Piss Christ will always be labeled as an obscene, disgusting, and immoral attack on Christian values.  It will always instigate the righteous to protest and, again and again, Piss Christ will receive international attention (instead of fading into obscurity).

Naturally, a rather sound argument can be made in favor of seeing Piss Christ as a blasphemous attack on Christianity.  After all, the image literally depicts a crucifix in a jar of urine.  I cannot dispute that.  Yet, I can make a cogent argument in favor of stepping back from the supposed controversy and refraining from making a rush to judgment.  However, I can best make my point by deferring to the views of another, art expert and Catholic nun, Sister Wendy Beckett.

Sister Wendy Beckett

CLICK HERE to hear Sister Wendy’s opinion of Piss Christ (Sister Wendy in Conversation with Bill Moyers—WGBH-Boston, 1997).

In short, Sister Wendy says that viewers who see Piss Christ as blasphemous prefer “comforting art—art that is very easy to react to.”  She says that such works of art provide these viewers with the confidence of knowing that their interpretation is the only possible interpretation, the correct interpretation.  These comforted viewers do not appreciate challenging art that, like Piss Christ, “makes demands.”

Sister Wendy also states her opinion of Serrano and provides an interpretation of Piss Christ:

“I thought he was saying, in a rather simplistic, magazine-y type of way, that this is what we are doing to Christ, we are 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; one wouldn’t want to go on looking at it once one had already seen it once. But I think to call it blasphemous is really rather begging the question: it could be, or it could not be.  It is what you make of it, and I could make something that made me feel a deep desire to reverence the death of Christ more by this suggestion that this is what, in practice, the world is doing.”

I completely agree with Sister Wendy.  Piss Christ could be seen as a symbol that true believers can regard as a counterpoint to their faith.  In the end, perhaps faith is best judged when provided with a counterpoint.  I see it as a binary—good/evil, heaven/hell, Christ/antichrist—such contradictory relationships are inextricably linked.  In order for one to truly see what is “good” he or she must see and understand the “evil.”

Perhaps the following article can provide an additional perspective:

CLICK HERE to read “Christ is Pissed, Again” by Hollis Phelps (Religion Dispatches Magazine, September 26, 2012).

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Filed under: Visual Literacy

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