It’s odd isn’t it, we all enjoy freedom of speech, probably without really registering that we are partaking of it. The fact that we can freely express our views is probably one of the most taken for granted rights we have, yet, I see maybe taking offence to things on a regular basis, without thinking by doing it they are in turn taking away another’s right to have their own freedom of speech. I am not really talking about disagreeing with things in a logical and well-rounded argument type of way, as that is healthy, I am more thinking about the wanton destruction of art or destructive protests to try and make a point. These acts undermine the freedom of speech and opinion as it changes from open and accepting discussion on differing stances to a violent display.
Nothing brings about these acts more so than religion or politics, so when artists cross the line from simple representations of these things uproar usually ensues, especially when you start to mix body fluids into the mediums used.
There have been many artists who use body fluids in their art, and most are thought to be doing it for some kind of shock tactic, just trying to push the audience as well as their own boundaries. Very few look a little deeper to what the artist might be trying to say, or perhaps consider that the artist is using their own journey as something to display. I can recall coming across an artist called Ron Athey when I was studying, and his work fascinated me. At the time, audiences deemed his work controversial as it involved body mutilation or bloodletting on stage. Few looked into the deeper meaning of these sometimes harrowing performances, marking them as sensationalism rather than the artist’s journey through AIDs and his own discovery of why he was still surviving while others had not.
With this in mind, thinking of the nature of ritualistic bloodletting on stage, and how that can be very emotive, why do you think a photography could cause uproar?
In 1987, Andres Serrano released a photo which won South-eastern Centre for Contemporary Art’s “Awards in the Visual Arts” competition, which was sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a United States Government agency that offers support and funding for artistic projects.
The photo was of a small plastic Jesus on the cross immersed in a jar of Serrano’s urine. Regardless of what the cross was submerged in, the piece has a truly ethereal feel to it.
Without knowing the title, you could easily assume that the piece has been set in amber, or any coloured liquid, as a heavenly glow appears around the upper part of the cross as well as the head and torso of the effigy of Christ. A constellation of air bubbles give the otherworldly feel to this piece, and it is only through the reference in the title and the artists very open admissions of what the liquid is, that we know it to be his own body fluids.
Through the years of 1986 to 1990 Serrano had worked a lot with body fluids, capturing blood, semen, milk and urine, sometimes mixing together, sometimes with things submerged into them, so it is unsurprising that he mixed his own beliefs into his work.
Originally this piece was well received when shown in the Stux Gallery, and Serrano had received funding from the NEA, but when the photo was displayed in 1989, it started to cause outrage and controversy. US Senators Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms slammed the piece as blasphemous and criticised the NEA for giving funding.
Serrano received death threats and hate mail, as well as losing grant funding as public interesting in it climbed and the NEA had its budget cut.
This isn’t to say that everyone hated it. Serrano had stated that his work was somewhat ambiguous, although it was a social comment on how culturally we were cheapening the icon of Christ (I mean how much cheaper can you get than a plastic crucifix that was probably mass produced in China), the statement is merely a mark on how churches and politicians alike cash in on a mass belief, one that the artist himself follows. Sister Wendy Beckett, an art critic and Nun made a public statement echoing Serrano’s meaning, saying, “this is what we are doing to Christ”.
Things did not die down around this piece and in 1997 it was to go on display in the National Gallery Victoria, Australia as part of a retrospective of Serrano’s work. Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell sought an injunction from the supreme court to stop the display of the work, which was overturned. Just days after being of display a member of the public tried to remove the piece and two teenagers attacked it with a hammer. Staff at the gallery received death threats and in the end the show was cancelled under the pretence that gallery officials were concerned about the display of Rembrandts which was also there at the time.
In 2011 the piece was attacked again beyond repair, while part of the “I believe in miracles” exhibit in the contemporary art museum, Avignon, France. Another piece by Serrano, which was part of a series called “The Church” was also damaged at this exhibit.
In 2012 during an exhibit at the Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery in New York, the public called for Barrack Obama to denounce the artwork, comparing it to the film “Innocence of Muslims” which had been condemned by the white house earlier that year.
What I find remarkable in all of this is that no one looked at their own behaviour. Apparently, it has become totally acceptable to deface an effigy of Christ, damage someone’s work and attribute their own damning take on the piece, rather than listen to what the artist was trying to say. Had the piece not been called “Piss Christ” would anyone have taken offence? Probably not. If the artist had not openly said that he had used his own urine, would there have been uproar, definitely not, as without that information the picture looks like Jesus bathed in a divine light.
For me this is a bit of a case of “a rose by any other name”, it is still a picture representing Jesus, it has an eerie beauty to it, but rather than audiences latching on to the beauty, they have looked and found a deep-seated negativity through the artist’s vision, taking it as an offence. Whatever happened to that thing all mothers used to say of “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”…? As that would have served well in this case.
What I do like in this is that while such negative public displays have been seen from religious groups around this piece, it still continues to be displayed, seemingly as an important part of art history, and a mark of Serrano’s early work.
Serrano’s name is now synonymous with controversy, which ultimately has worked in his favour as people definitely know his name, and his trademark works regardless of the public reaction to this piece.
My final thought on this is that I would urge all of you to look at art from a different perspective, don’t immediately take offence to what you see, but think about what the artist is trying to say, commit to a different frame of mind before taking a hammer to someone else’s artistic property.
Come back next month for another art scandal in detail.