Art: I know It When I See It

Piss Christ, Serrano Andres
Piss Christ, Serrano Andres

Last year, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ reignited the old “What is art?” discussion. Serrano shocked the art world in 1987 with a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a jar of his urine. He again sparked controversy in September 2012 when Piss Christ was featured at the Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery in New York. The photograph not only shocked the religious communities who were offended by the desecration of a holy symbol, Serrano’s work also forced even the most open-minded to ask, “Is this art?”

A quick Google search of the definition of art yields this: “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture.” I guess no one can argue that Serrano used his imagination to produce his work. But did he really apply creative skill? Admittedly, Piss Christ is creative, but skilled?

No. Absolutely not.

Maybe I am too quick to judge Serrano. And maybe he is ahead of his time, and we are (or at least I am) incapable of appreciating his talent. When Pablo Picasso first entered the art scene, many dismissed his work in the same fashion I dismiss Serrano.  Only after his death were people able to appreciate his creative genius.

1Artists such as Degas and Monet, also, strayed away from the norm and subsequently endured a contemptuous reception.  In response, Degas, Monet, and other dismissed artists united to create a modern art. And today, we celebrate these artists for their innovativeness and herald their work as art.

Edgar Degas, Woman ironing, c. 1869 Oil on canvas, 92.5 x 73.5 cm © Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Neue Pinakothek München
Edgar Degas, Woman ironing, c. 1869
Oil on canvas, 92.5 x 73.5 cm
© Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Neue Pinakothek München

History continually shows us that we reject the new because we don’t understand it.  With time, the public grew to understand and appreciate the beauty found in the works of Picasso, Monet, and Degas among many others.

I’m probably reacting to Serrano the same way people from the 19th century reacted to Degas.  Half a century from now, Serrano’s Piss Christ might be considered the iconic work from our generation. But for the sake art and all that is beautiful, I pray that Piss Christ does not become the new standard of art. I can handle Picasso’s strange shapes and colors – I might not understand him, but I can admire him.  But Serrano? I highly doubt I’ll ever be able to look at that photograph of the little crucifix in a jar without grimacing. I don’t own the official rubber stamp for art, but I know art when I see it, and Piss Christ is not art. 

You can visit the Neue Pinakothek’s ongoing exhibition entitled Changing Perspectives: Degas – Picasso | Gauguin– Nolde | Monet – Macke which will run until 31 August.  If you can’t make Munich, you can also explore works by modern artists such as: Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh.