"Piss Christ" is back, and is raising the usual excitement among shallow avant-garde minds.
Or, at least, the controversy surrounding it has been raised from the dead, now that it is back in New York at the Edward Tyler Nahem gallery (through October 26) in an exhibit called "Body and Spirit" which celebrates the life and work of its creator, the artist Andres Serrano, whom we've written about before.
Over twenty years ago, in 1989, the hazy image of a crucified Christ, submerged in a jar of Serrano's urine, created a public firestorm when conservative Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (NY) deplored it on the Senate floor as a "despicable display of vulgarity" — one that had, no less, been funded by taxpayers. Serrano was radical, but he wasn't that radical: The so-called avant-garde artist received government support to the tune of $15,000 for the work.
Today, what's astonishing about Piss Christ is not its vulgarity or shock-value; it is a completely mundane work of "art" which has aged as well as a cheap wine spritzer. The only merit it has is as a historical artifact of the culture wars. It is, to use the phrase of TNC art critic James Panero, a boring blasphemy.
No, what's astonishing is that despite its third-rate stature, it continues, after all these years, to provoke its intended target to disturbing outbursts of anger and violence.
On Palm Sunday in 2011, for instance, a group of radical young Christians stormed a gallery in Avignon, France, which was displaying Piss Christ as part of an exhibit. They made their way past security, threatened a guard with a hammer, broke through the Plexiglas protecting the image, and slashed it with a sharp object. In 1997 at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia, the work was also vandalized, and gallery officials received death threats for showing it. In 2007, a group of neo-Nazis attacked a Serrano show in Sweden (though Piss Christ was not on display there).
Are there parallels to the recent shocking events in the Middle East, where, on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, Islamists stormed the American embassies in Cairo and Benghazi, burning American flags and killing U.S. diplomats? Yes and no. The Islamists, too, were protesting an offense to the faith: A bizarre 14-minute anti-Islam YouTube video, "The Innocence of Muslims."
On the other hand, no one expects Christian groups to start murdering innocent people over the exhibit or to storm U.S. embassies over it.
Still, the Muslim reaction to the video and Christian reaction to Piss Christ raise a puzzling question: Why were members of each faith moved to destroy the object (or stand-ins for the object) that offended them? Why did they overreact to these C-grade works?
That said, the longstanding confrontation between the Catholic League and Serrano's work was rather anti-climatic on Thursday. Donohue claims that following the press conference, the gallery barred him entry into the show. There was no major protest.
The Catholic League's heart is in the right place, but I wonder if there's a different way to respond to such "art."
"Terrible ideas, reprehensible ideas, do not disappear if you ban them," Salman Rushdie recently said in relation to the anti-Muslim video. "They go underground. They acquire a kind of glamour of taboo. In the harsh light of day, they are out there and, like vampires, they die in the sunlight."
The culture war over Piss Christ is really a battle of competing egos: the ego of the artist and the egos of the offended observers. What more could it be?
Consider, after all, what Piss Christ is. It is the "aesthetic equivalent of a temper tantrum," Rev. George Rutler, a Catholic leader in New York, told me in an e-mail. "Since Christ survived a crucifixion, Christianity will not be harmed by some man's display of his own arrested development," Rutler wisely remarks.
Speaking of arrested development, among the other works on display at the New York retrospective are: "Piss Discus," "Semen and Blood, III" "Madonna on the Rocks," and an image of a Playboy bunny. Serrano has all the sophistication of a man-boy who delights in the filth of his own bodily fluids. Serrano is like the Charlie Sheen of the art world.
"Sneering at religion is juvenile, symptomatic of a stunted imagination," writes Camille Paglia, an atheist, in her new book Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. She is referring directly to Piss Christ. I interviewed Paglia last Thursday about her new book at the museum of art in Philadelphia, and she made the point that religion lies at the heart of all great art. One of the reasons why the art world is spiritually and intellectually hollow today, she said, is because it continues to "sneer" at religion and think, mistakenly, that doing so is still avant-garde. It's not. It's old news.
Serrano's work is not so much anti-Christian as it is anti-intelligent. So why not let the Piss Christ, and the juvenile imagination that gave birth to it, die in the light of sunlight?
Reprinted with permission of the author and The New Criterion
The New Criterion, founded in 1982, is a monthly review of the arts and intellectual life. Written with great verve, clarity, and wit, The New Criterion has emerged as America's foremost voice of critical dissent in the culture wars now raging throughout the Western world. A staunch defender of the values of high culture, The New Criterion is also an articulate scourge of artistic mediocrity and intellectual mendacity wherever they are found: in the universities, the art galleries, the media, the concert halls, the theater, and elsewhere.
Emily Esfahani Smith is the editor of the pop-culture blog Acculturated, associate editor of The New Criterion, and managing editor of the Hoover Institution journal Defining Ideas. A 2009 Dartmouth College graduate, she was editor of The Dartmouth Review. Her writings have also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The New Criterion, The Daily Beast, Weekly Standard, American Spectator Online, and National Review Online. Emily contributed a chapter titled "Performance Art: The Faux Creativity of Lady Gaga" to Acculturated, a book published in 2011 by Templeton Press.
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