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Before sharks swam in formaldehyde, there was Piss Christ
April 19, 2011 10:55 AM   Subscribe

Andres Serrano (some NSWF images) has made controversial art for decades, with his piece Piss Christ causing controversy shortly after it was created in 1987. In 1989, the photograph initiated outrage against the National Endowment for the Arts because of "anti-Christian bigotry". Then the piece was physically attacked two times in one weekend, when it was first shown in the National Gallery of Victoria in 1997. In December 2010, the Collection Lambert museum of contemporary art in Avignon, France opened a show called "I Believe in Miracles" that includes pieces of minimal art, conceptual art and land art, and includes Piss Christ. The photograph had been shown in France before without disturbance, and had been shown without incident in Collection Lambert for four months, but around 1,000 protesters marched to the museum on Saturday, and on Sunday vandals succeeded in attacking the picture, breaking the plexiglass shield and slashing the photograph. The museum is open again, and the damaged work is still on display.

In the struggle to get to Piss Christ, another Serrano photograph, The Church (Sœur Jeanne-Myriam) was also damaged.

Guardian arts writer Jonathan Jones said the vandals "took the bait," and likened the photo to the gruesome details in the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald, and the "popular religiosity" of Warhol's Last Supper series.

Serrano has made a number of photographs of other immersed statuettes, but none seem to have raised such concern and ire as Piss Christ.

Previous Serrano vandalism: self proclaimed "National Socialists" destroyed nearly half of Andres Serrano's exhibit "The History of Sex", and videotaped themselves in the act.
posted by filthy light thief (143 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
There's something sisyphean in the attempt to destroy a photograph, isn't there? I mean, if it weren't for the scale that Serrano prefers to display his work, a fresh copy could have back on display by Sunday noon.
posted by .kobayashi. at 11:01 AM on April 19, 2011 [12 favorites]


The photograph had been shown in France before without disturbance

That sounds about right.
posted by phaedon at 11:03 AM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


@.koybayashi. Indeed. People are mighty riled up about a photographic representation of a statuette representing their lord. Even if they were able to destroy the statuette, it wouldn't be tough to reproduce or recreate entirely quite quickly.

I was going to say something about it being similar to the fight against hate speech as opposed to fighting the root cause of hate to begin with, but all sides in this could feel their viewpoints are being impinged upon.
posted by Doug Stewart at 11:05 AM on April 19, 2011


Just want to say that when Stephen Colbert pulled Serrano out of the backstage in a surprise appearance a month or two back, I was floored.
posted by jscott at 11:07 AM on April 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I saw somewhere that the curator said he was leaving the damaged works on display "to show what barbarians can do."

I agree.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:07 AM on April 19, 2011 [20 favorites]


The damaged piece makes a stronger artistic statement than the original. I applaud the decision to continue displaying it.
posted by rocket88 at 11:08 AM on April 19, 2011 [12 favorites]


Crowdsourcing art!
posted by KokuRyu at 11:08 AM on April 19, 2011 [7 favorites]


I saw somewhere that the curator said he was leaving the damaged works on display "to show what barbarians can do."

A sign of the end times I suppose...
posted by infini at 11:09 AM on April 19, 2011


This was the subject of my column today, with a look as some other examples of art involving religious iconography that has likewise been banned and vandalized.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:09 AM on April 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


The downside is that I don't think anyone would have the nerve to do a second photograph, similar in style, but featuring Mohammed.
posted by wackyvorlon at 11:09 AM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just want to say that when Stephen Colbert pulled Serrano out of the backstage in a surprise appearance a month or two back, I was floored.

Link?
posted by odinsdream at 11:10 AM on April 19, 2011


Check and mate! With this move they have insured that this photograph will fade from the public eye, never to be see or thought about again!
posted by dirtdirt at 11:12 AM on April 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


There's something sisyphean in the attempt to destroy a photograph, isn't there?

The actual destruction of the photograph matters little. What matters is the message... and when you get a thousand people storming a museum and destroying "offensive" art, the message comes through loud and clear: you are not allowed to make "blasphemous" art.

Fortunately, the museum's response sends the opposite message -- yes, we can, and you can't stop us.
posted by vorfeed at 11:13 AM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think anyone would have the nerve to do a second photograph, similar in style, but featuring Mohammed.

Maybe, maybe not, but that would be a totally different thing. If selling plastic Mohammed trinkets was a billion-dollar industry, it would be comparable. That was the point of the original, according to the artist.
posted by echo target at 11:16 AM on April 19, 2011 [9 favorites]


Link?

I believe jscott is referring to this segment. Serrano appears at 9:25.
posted by MissySedai at 11:18 AM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wonder what one says to the artist after something like this? I see Serrano and his girlfriend at our favorite coffee shop quite often.
posted by nicwolff at 11:19 AM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


With the help of an accomplice, the vandal managed to escape.

Cowards. If the vandals had wanted to make a statement, they should have stood their ground, been arrested, pleaded their case in court, and taken the punishment, if any. People might respect that kind of behavior. But they didn't have the guts for a principled stand.
posted by Triplanetary at 11:19 AM on April 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't think anyone would have the nerve to do a second photograph, similar in style, but featuring Mohammed.

I bet I know how the same Christians who destroyed the Piss Christ photo would react to a similarly-styled Mohammed piece.
posted by xedrik at 11:20 AM on April 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wow! The best validation for this kind of shock art is precisely the protests and vandalism the artist wanted. Good job protesters! You've succeeded in making this work famous forever. I'll bet the value went up post vandalism.
posted by thebestusernameever at 11:20 AM on April 19, 2011


That was the point of the original, according to the artist.

Actually, I don't get the sense that this was his point -- it may be a secondary idea in the art, but Serrano is an aesthete above all, and it seems his primary goal was an investigation into what happens when you submerge the beautiful into the profane. What interests me is that Serrano's results are quite beautiful -- in my article, I quote an interview Serrano gave where he discusses being raised Roman Catholic, his aesthetic attraction to Catholic iconography, and his sense that a photo lie "Piss Christ" belongs in a church. He actually advises the Catholic Church to buy a copy.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:20 AM on April 19, 2011 [10 favorites]


He should have put up a non-original copy as a duplicate, then recorded the events from a variety of angles, but mostly from the viewpoint of the photograph.

He could later exhibit the footage as an installation called Tolerance.
posted by adipocere at 11:21 AM on April 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos: I saw somewhere that the curator said he was leaving the damaged works on display "to show what barbarians can do."

The Guardian piece has that quote, while I've seen other sources (not lost in the ever-updating list of "related news stories" that had what I'm guessing was a different translation.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:23 AM on April 19, 2011


I guess the protesters feel that Christ is no match for a pot of piss.
posted by benzenedream at 11:27 AM on April 19, 2011


He should have put up a non-original copy as a duplicate,

"Piss Christ" has always been much more than a well-done photograph and it seems to me that the destruction of the original controversial photograph is part of the art. Maybe not what Serrano intended, but still.
posted by three blind mice at 11:32 AM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's something sisyphean in the attempt to destroy a photograph, isn't there? I mean, if it weren't for the scale that Serrano prefers to display his work, a fresh copy could have back on display by Sunday noon.

It depends, not all photographic processes can be replicated on demand or in mass quantities.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:34 AM on April 19, 2011


It is sad to see religious extremism in France, where this response seems also related to right-wing anxieties over the growing muslim population. But then catholicism and fascism were always bedfellows.
posted by binturong at 11:34 AM on April 19, 2011


Two things: first, I haven't read everything linked so I might have missed it somewhere, but I am very surprised that even The Guardian doesn't mention Avignon's history, namely the Avignon Papacy. Avignon is regarded by devoted French Catholics as second only to Rome, since it is, in fact, the only city outside of Rome where popes ruled.

Second, southeastern France is also, unfortunately, more right-leaning than the rest of the country. In recent élections cantonales, the Front National gained a frightening lot of ground. There have been and are Front National mayors and representatives in this part of France. I don't quite know why; Marseille and Toulon are major ports, but Paris is a major airline hub and you just don't see the same racism there. It's disheartening.
posted by fraula at 11:35 AM on April 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


You could make a Buddha out of elephant dung or rotting meat, and it wouldn't actually be all that profound. It would just be the truth.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:35 AM on April 19, 2011 [7 favorites]


it seems to me that the destruction of the original controversial photograph is part of the art.

Yeah, it reminds me of the glass piece by Duchamp that got slightly cracked on delivery and Duchamp decided he liked it better than way.

As a collector, I would rather have the hammer shattered "Piss Christ" than the 9 non-shattered one. It now has such a good story!
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:35 AM on April 19, 2011


Serrano is an aesthete above all, and it seems his primary goal was an investigation into what happens when you submerge the beautiful into the profane.

This, and also that Serrano is an artist who is rather focused on the human body as an assembly of mess and waste and filth. His photographs often feature blood, feces, semen, and urine, corpses, the homeless, burn victims. It seems to me (keeping Serrano's Roman Catholic background in mind) that Serrano's investigation of mixing the profound and the profane is a particularly Christological enterprise-- the image of the holy being surrounded by shit and piss and filth is an image of Christ, and an image of humanity. If anything, the reaction against Serrano's work (particularly Piss Christ) stands as an indication that much of the Christian church has forgotten exactly what it is that they celebrate about Christ-- that God became a nasty, gross piece of decaying flesh like the rest of us, and showed us that we are more than just nasty, gross pieces of decaying flesh. To turn the cross, of all things, into a sacred thing that we cannot bear to see dirty is to ignore the reason that we originally cared about the cross in the first place.

If Christ can't be filthy, then he's no Christ.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:41 AM on April 19, 2011 [89 favorites]


The story of the monk from Tan-hsia burning a wooden image of the Buddha, an incident in the life of the Ch'an master T'ien-jan Ch'an-shih (738-824), is told in The Record of the Transmission of the Lamp: "Later, when he was staying at the Hui-lin-ssu in very cold weather, the Master took a wooden statue of the Buddha and burned it. When someone criticized him for doing so, the Master said: 'I burned it in order to get the sarira [i.e., the ashes of the Buddha, which were venerated as relics].' The man said: 'But how can you get sarira from an ordinary piece of wood?' The Master replied: 'If it is nothing more than a piece of wood, why should you upbraid me [for burning it]?"
posted by Tom-B at 11:47 AM on April 19, 2011 [28 favorites]


Christ, what a piss-hole.
posted by Ratio at 11:48 AM on April 19, 2011


shakespeherian sets forth exactly what I bring up in the context of Serrano's piece. There is IMHO no better modern work that so perfectly captures the moment of the crucifixion of Jesus and what that actually freaking means in a theological sense!
posted by Bohemia Mountain at 11:48 AM on April 19, 2011


To me, it seems way more blasphemous to smash Christ's face in with a hammer than to dunk a plastic image of him in piss and photograph it. I've seen the photo itself in person and it is quite powerful as a religious image, even without the 'piss' aspect.
posted by mike_bling at 11:51 AM on April 19, 2011


Those Catholics – ever the eager iconoclasts.
posted by koeselitz at 11:51 AM on April 19, 2011


I applaud the photograph (it is a rather nice picture), and also the smashing of it. I only wish someone had taken a profound picture of the destruction.
posted by Debaser626 at 11:53 AM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


> The downside is that I don't think anyone would have the nerve to do a second photograph, similar in style, but featuring Mohammed.

It would be weak art. First, because an image like that, made in reaction to "Piss Christ" and the circumstances around it, would amount to trendfollowing rather than creating something out of ones own need for expression or experimentation. Second, since it's common knowledge that iconography of The Prophet is forbidden it's an an easy attention-grabbing thing to do, for which any further elaboration or introspection is pretty much counterproductive.

Serrano made "Piss Christ" in part because of his own deep emotional and psychological involvement in Catholicism and its imagery. Practitioners of other beliefs have to find their own ways of expression and revolt, if it feels necessary to them at all. You can't do it for them.
posted by ardgedee at 12:05 PM on April 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'd never heard of Piss Christ.. this kind of PR is priceless and usually makes art go up in value and reputation. For example Tony Shafrazi's attack on Guernica.
posted by stbalbach at 12:07 PM on April 19, 2011


From Wikipedia: Sister Wendy Beckett, an art critic and Catholic nun, stated in a television interview with Bill Moyers that she regarded the work as not blasphemous but a statement on "what we have done to Christ": that is, the way contemporary society has come to regard Christ and the values he represents.
posted by munchingzombie at 12:07 PM on April 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


fraula, thanks for the additional context!
posted by filthy light thief at 12:09 PM on April 19, 2011


the NEA controversy inspired one of my favorite cartoons ever

http://imgur.com/gallery/IasA6
posted by bendybendy at 12:10 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


As long as people keep doing shit like this, people need to keep making statements like Piss Christ. Maybe one day people will understand that freedom of expression is important enough that your own offence doesn't justify an exception being made.

Ha ha. I kill myself.
posted by Decani at 12:11 PM on April 19, 2011


...when Stephen Colbert pulled Serrano out of the backstage in a surprise appearance...

At first I read that as "out of his backside."
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:11 PM on April 19, 2011


that is, the way contemporary society has come to regard Christ and the values he represents.

See, I disagree with Wikipedia's interpretation of Sister Wendy's words. I think she's talking more about how Jesus, as a cultural icon, has joined the sad ranks of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, whose likenesses are used to sell cars on President’s Day. Jesus is now spokesman for Cabbage Patch dolls, shopping mall clearance sales, political candidates, megachurch coffeeshops, and Easter candy. I think she's talking about the Christianity that vies for dominion in our current 'Culture War'-- the Christianity of salesmanship, of thrift, of retail outlets, of consumerism, of greed. That there is a Christianity that's manufactured a Jesus who watches, smiling, from a cardboard cutout, as we push forward in the checkout line, as we crowd around the shelf trying to get the last cellophane-wrapped Thomas Kinkade Christmas cards. A Jesus who stimulates the economy rather than the soul. A Jesus we love not because he is comforting, but because he is comfortable.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:14 PM on April 19, 2011 [8 favorites]


I think Jesus would be pissed off.
posted by clavdivs at 12:14 PM on April 19, 2011


Andres Serrano, real life troll.
posted by Xoebe at 12:18 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Reminds me of the attack on Michelangelo's Pietà by a mentally disturbed geologist. Onlookers took many of the pieces of marble that flew off. Later, some pieces were returned, but many were not, including Mary's nose, which had to be reconstructed from a block cut out of her back.

I may not know anything about art, but I know what I'll break.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:23 PM on April 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


You could make a Buddha out of elephant dung or rotting meat, and it wouldn't actually be all that profound. It would just be the truth.

That's actually entirely why it'd be profound.

When the first set of fundie riots began over the NEA's funding of Serrano and Mapplethorpe in the summer of 1989, Sidney Yates (D-IL), the head of the subcommittee that was in charge of appropriating funds to the NEA, showed Dick Armey a copy of Picasso's Crucifixion and asked him if it offended him, and Armey said it did not, but added, "I know offensive art when I see it." And that was the most enlightened thing that any of the politicians frothing at the mouth about the photograph had to say about it.

It's odd that the New York Times, after all that time, still doesn't see fit to print the name of the offending photograph. It's sad that 20-odd years later, we're still involved in this same childish shitstorm over a piece of art, and that the art in question inspires destructive rage. Then again, that's part of the point of the most transgressive art.
posted by blucevalo at 12:24 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Andres Serrano, real life troll.

There is a quality of trolling that contemporary art has; that's a fair assessment. A lot of it is meant to be a little irritating, or really irritating. But it's trolling with purpose, rather than for the lulz. With good art, that irritation you feel is the experience of being challenged -- of having a piece of art force you to confront your assumptions about art, or, as with Serrano's piece, puts a finger on societal fracture points -- areas where there is no consensus, and there are strong, unexamined feelings. Nobody attacked this image because it is blasphemous. They just decided it is, ignoring the fact that it is, in fact, a rather glorious image, with the crucifix bathed in lights and immersed in a sense of mystery. It's only knowing how the piece was created that gives a sense of offense, and that offense comes entirely from the presumption that the urine was meant as an insult. But urine, by itself, is not insulting. It's just a fluid, and one that Jesus himself, presumably, would have created quite a lot of.

You can either rise to the challenge that this sort of art demands, or you can just make a series of assumptions about it, never check them, and grab your hammer and screwdriver and just start breaking things. Or you can stay home and not bother yourself about the art. If you don't like a piece of art, nobody is requiring you to go into a gallery, and that's fine.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:26 PM on April 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


But urine, by itself, is not insulting. It's just a fluid, and one that Jesus himself, presumably, would have created quite a lot of.

Yes, Jesus turned water into urine. And it wasn't ever a miracle!
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:32 PM on April 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


I also wanted to note that this is an extremely well done post.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:33 PM on April 19, 2011


Andres Serrano, real life troll.

You view him the same way the Pharisees viewed Christ. Perhaps there's a piece of art somewhere that could inspire some sort of internal dialogue about that very subject... nope! Looks like some fanatically religious people destroyed it. How ironic.
posted by notion at 12:37 PM on April 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


Andres Serrano, real life troll.

Basically. I've always found Serrano, Hirst and most well known performance/shock art upsetting, not because the subjects of the pieces are offensive or "blasphemous," but because people generally don't roll their eyes hard enough at what essentially amounts to schlock.

"Piss Christ" is not serious art. I know that opens up the whole can of worms of, "What is art?" and that ultimately, "Art is what we say it is!" and that having a negative reaction to a shock piece is supposed to "challenge our perception of art" and that that is in some small way a part of work like this, but you know what? Who really cares? That's not an interesting, novel or meaningful thing to say or realize. It takes no talent or inspiration or craft to impart that message and says nothing whatsoever about life or the human experience.

"Piss Christ" is a lazy punchline, executed just about as poorly as it could possibly have been; it's juvenile, distasteful and corrosive to the soul in how uninspired, insipid and just uninteresting it is.

Argh. Sometimes I just want to go back in time and strangle Duchamp for releasing the "not-art presented as art becomes art!" genie. And I sort of like Duchamp!

In spite of my feelings about "Piss Christ," Serrano and the larger segment of the art world they inhabit, I don't condone the vandalism. Destroying generally harmless things we don't like is not an idea I'll ever embrace.
posted by byanyothername at 12:44 PM on April 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Your assuming a whole range of intentions here, byanyothername, including that Serrano's goal was to shock people. And you're welcome to assume whatever you like, but your criticism of him is not born out by his body of work, which is often aesthetically rigorous.

As to "Piss Christ" being serious art, well, I think it is, but who says art has to be serious?
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:48 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Damaging such a picture... that's too much consideration. They should have pissed on it.
posted by nicolin at 12:51 PM on April 19, 2011


I don't think there's much else left to say after shakespeherian's comment...
posted by gagglezoomer at 12:53 PM on April 19, 2011


"Piss Christ" is a lazy punchline, executed just about as poorly as it could possibly have been; it's juvenile, distasteful and corrosive to the soul in how uninspired, insipid and just uninteresting it is.

If nothing else, isn't it interesting that something that so many people think is a cheap joke can be so pretty?
posted by shakespeherian at 12:56 PM on April 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


"Piss Christ" is a lazy punchline, executed just about as poorly as it could possibly have been; it's juvenile, distasteful and corrosive to the soul in how uninspired, insipid and just uninteresting it is.

I'd like to press you on this. What do you consider inspired and interesting? I'm not a huge fan of modern art myself, but I definitely consider Piss Christ as art because it is so provacative, as well as aesthetically pleasing. With a different title and unknown process it could certainly join this in the art gallery at the Vatican.
posted by notion at 12:58 PM on April 19, 2011


FTW FLT-nice post BTW. Well written with oodles on context.
posted by clavdivs at 12:58 PM on April 19, 2011


clavdivs, thanks. It was in part to Astro Zombie's comment on MetaTalk, and it seemed like an interesting topic without much back story covered in the majority of news stories. The Guardian was the first that provided much context to the current attack on the art, and a few mentioned the NEA controversy that started in 1989, but without much detail.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:06 PM on April 19, 2011


I appreciate that, filthy light thief. I was hoping somebody would post this, and you put a lot of care into it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:08 PM on April 19, 2011


yeah... the ultimate funny joke would be if 40 years later it was revealed that there was no urine involved in the process at all. If people have intense negative criticisms on a piece of art based on it's name, and description of process rather than the object itself, I think that says more about personal baggage brought to the viewing of the piece of art, rather than the art itself.

Perhaps he should have called it Yellow #5?
posted by edgeways at 1:09 PM on April 19, 2011


Even in an absolute cultural vacuum devoid of meaning and commentary, Piss Christ is a beautiful photograph and is worthy of the "art" label. If he had called it Amber Christ and said it was gold food coloring in that jar, it'd be a favorite of Christians everywhere. If anything, it shows the extreme distaste we have for our own bodies that we're willing to entertain the idea that such a tremendous photograph featuring the image of Christ would be 'blasphemous'. If God created man, he created us with piss and shit and everything else as inherent functions, and the work in that context is even more enlightening - man's savior immersed in the by-products of man's creator.

Piss Christ is not shock art. It's not Dadaist bullshit. It's not some insipid Duchamp I-made-you-an-art-but-it's-an-object thing. It's a real, actual piece of art that does what art is supposed to do: make us consider our own perceptions, preconceived notions, and ideals. It's beautiful. It has layers of meaning. It makes a statement without being explicit about what that statement is, engaging the viewer and challenging us to interpret it. I think anyone seeing it for less than that has taken their own immediate reaction to the medium to the extreme and not stopped to actually consider what they're seeing, what it means, and how we can use it as a focal point to think about our relationship to religion and humanity.
posted by 0xFCAF at 1:10 PM on April 19, 2011 [11 favorites]


Properly, it should have been Yellow #1.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:10 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't like Piss Christ that much, but a lot of Serrano's other work is really good photography, especially his portraits. He's not just a troll, the man has real talent.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:11 PM on April 19, 2011


Whoah whoah whoah, we're going after Duchamp now?
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:11 PM on April 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Really.
posted by R. Mutt at 1:15 PM on April 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


Given how inevitable a violent reaction to the piece was, I think that Piss Christ and its destruction should be viewed together as a single work, in the Dadaist sense.
posted by acb at 1:17 PM on April 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Even though many Christians agree on His full humanity, I don't think most like to consider must consider the full implications of Jesus’ humanity. And, of course, many immature Christians cannot deal with an outsider doing so in public.

I had a priest friend who loved to go around mildly shocking people by saying, “You know the best thing about Jesus Christ? He had hairy legs!” And people would laugh. But why? Jesus did have hairy legs. And poopy diapers as a baby. And nose hair, probably. Without the benefit of Right Guard or Dr. Scholl’s sandal inserts, he probably smelled pretty bad at times too. Jesus wept, Jesus bled, Jesus peed, Jesus pooped. He was human. Thank God.

To down play all that tells us more about ourselves than anything. To deny one iota of Jesus’ humanity, even those aspects of being human we don’t even want to acknowledge about ourselves, is to cut the very core out of the central message of Christianity.

What many don't give Serrano credit for was that he was examining the faith, not deriding it. I grudgingly admired Serrano’s refusal to let me conveniently separate the divine from the profane in my mind. In fact, approaching it from across the gallery, not knowing what it was, I thought the picture is quite beautiful. The golden light that bathes the crucifix appeared to glorify it, not degrade it.

Then I stepped forward to read the card and realized, “Oh. So this is it.”

And then I had to confront my own revulsion, my own righteous anger, my own shamefulness of my own humanity. I drove home contemplating urine and blood and Jesus what it means to be human and what it means to be divine and if Jesus came to show us that there didn’t need to be a difference. Maybe sin was the only thing separating our humanity from our potential divinity. Maybe Jesus showed us how to be human and divine at the same time by conquering sin. Maybe… My faith was strengthened by viewing a cross submerged in urine. Go figure.

And thirteen years later I came across this poem by Andrew Hudgins in Slate which says it more eloquently that I ever could have.

Piss Christ
—————–
If we did not know it was cow’s blood and urine,
if we did not know that Serrano had for weeks
hoarded his urine in a plastic vat,
if we did not know the cross was gimcrack plastic,
we would assume it was too beautiful.
We would assume it was the resurrection,
glory, Christ transformed to light by light
because the blood and urine burn like a halo,
and light, as always, light makes it beautiful.

We are born between the urine and the feces,
Augustine says, and so was Christ, if there was a Christ,
skidding into this world as we do
on a tide of blood and urine. Blood, feces, urine?
what the fallen world is made of, and what we make.
He peed, ejaculated, shat, wept, bled?
bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross and the blood and urine smeared his legs
and he ascended bodily unto heaven,
and on the third day he rose into glory, which
is what we see here, the Piss Christ in glowing blood:
the whole irreducible point of the faith,
God thrown in human waste, submerged and shining.

We have grown used to beauty without horror.

We have grown used to useless beauty.

– Andrew Hudgins, 2000
posted by cross_impact at 1:17 PM on April 19, 2011 [18 favorites]


there are a number of 14th and 15th century examples through out europe of Christ urinating--plus the abasement of the body is a holy act in catholicism...
posted by PinkMoose at 1:20 PM on April 19, 2011


I think that Piss Christ and its destruction should be viewed together as a single work, in the Dadaist sense.

It wouldn't be left up if Serrano objected.
posted by R. Mutt at 1:20 PM on April 19, 2011


As to "Piss Christ" being serious art, well, I think it is, but who says art has to be serious?

You're taking it seriously, aren't you? We're discussing it more or less seriously, I think. A lot of people in this thread are. I think the work itself is mediocre at best, and pretty lazy in its execution. That's fine, actually; the response bothers me more than the work itself, because it's so serious and overthought.

I'd like to press you on this. What do you consider inspired and interesting?

That's a big question, and I'm sure I'll change my mind in five minutes, but right now I'm going to go with: something that can stand on its own merits, with neither an artist's commentary nor critics' and audiences' interpretations necessary to give it value and meaning.

For me, "Piss Christ" fails that criteria. In fact, I might like it if I'd read more of what Serrano has to say about it, or knew more about Serrano as a person; I don't think that should be necessary, though, and some strains of art cross a threshold where the work itself becomes secondary to the intent or interpretations. That bugs me.

Also, I am being a little Devil's Advocate, because I thought some of the commentary was getting kind of hyperbolic. Basically, I just think it's ugly and kind of a dumb idea, and that there are more substantial things to beanplate about.

Whoah whoah whoah, we're going after Duchamp now?

Hey, I said I liked Duchamp, but no one can ever convince me that "Fountain" isn't horrible!
posted by byanyothername at 1:23 PM on April 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


something that can stand on its own merits, with neither an artist's commentary nor critics' and audiences' interpretations necessary to give it value and meaning.

I don't understand this. What sort of art has its own intrinsic value, without artist or audience or critic?

Not only is almost all art of the 20th century a dialogue between artist and audience, but it has ever been thus. The only art that I know of that has no additional meaning, outside whatever it just happens to be, is minimalist art, and people hate that stuff.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:26 PM on April 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


That's a big question, and I'm sure I'll change my mind in five minutes, but right now I'm going to go with: something that can stand on its own merits, with neither an artist's commentary nor critics' and audiences' interpretations necessary to give it value and meaning.

What specific works of art do you enjoy? To me it seems that your love of art is limited to materialistic aestheticism. And even to use only that metric, Piss Christ is art. It's only when people discover the process that they become upset, which would make them failures according to your standard, because they are reacting to the art and the artist instead of just looking at the picture.
posted by notion at 1:32 PM on April 19, 2011


Oh, no, I think you misunderstood. I didn't mean art that has its own intrinsic value in an artistless, audienceless vacuum, but just art that can be meaningful without someone telling you what it means. Art that speaks for itself, essentially. I generally find Serrano's subjects and titles speaking too much, more than the photographs themselves, and pushing for a particular reaction. I also find that people commenting on it do the same thing, with their own interpretations, by defending it in ways that make disliking it impossible.

An artist's commentary can add a lot of value to something, and I love sharing interpretations with others, but sometimes I feel an artist puts more time and effort into their commentary than their art.

Does that make more sense?
posted by byanyothername at 1:35 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Does that make more sense?

It makes sense. I just find it an exceptionally limiting definition.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:36 PM on April 19, 2011


art that can be meaningful without someone telling you what it means

I think there's a difference between me 1) telling you what it means and 2) talking about what it evokes for me, how it communicates to me, and what I see going on in it. I think that any art worth its stock brings out any number of conversations, evocations, hints, murmurs, ideas, questions, and arguments, and that art that only has one plain-faced statement is generally closer to what I think of as 'advertising' or 'propaganda.'
posted by shakespeherian at 1:41 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I just find it an exceptionally limiting definition.

Maybe you're right, actually. I sort of find the contemporary definition of art to be nebulous, vague and wide enough to be borderline meaningless; at the same time, I don't know how else to classify Serrano. I just consider "Piss Christ" to be bad art.

What specific works of art do you enjoy?

Fuseli, Monet, Renoir, Blake; I'm not sure how to answer, actually, because I don't think it's fair to compare my favorite visual artists with Serrano, who uses a totally different medium and aims for an entirely different aesthetic. As for reacting to art instead of just experiencing it, that isn't quite what I meant, and shakespeherian does a better job below of separating reactions to art from artists' statements than I can:

I think there's a difference between me 1) telling you what it means and 2) talking about what it evokes for me, how it communicates to me, and what I see going on in it. I think that any art worth its stock brings out any number of conversations, evocations, hints, murmurs, ideas, questions, and arguments, and that art that only has one plain-faced statement is generally closer to what I think of as 'advertising' or 'propaganda.'


I completely agree with you, but in this case I feel 1 happens more often than 2, both from the artist and from the reactions. Which is my 2, as weird as it is.
posted by byanyothername at 1:48 PM on April 19, 2011


If you see a statue of the Christ in the road, immerse it in piss and photograph it.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:48 PM on April 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I completely agree with you, but in this case I feel 1 happens more often than 2, both from the artist and from the reactions.

That's quite possibly true, but my point was that my impression of this thread is that there's been mostly the latter and not much, if any, of the former. And I disagree that Serrano's titles tell you what the work means-- I think the title 'Piss Christ,' while the particular diction of 'piss' makes suggestions that other words might not have, primarily functions as adding context in exactly the same way that Michelangelo's David does, or Turner's Hannibal Crossing the Alps. Is Picasso telling us how to react to Guernica with his title?
posted by shakespeherian at 1:55 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I strongly suspect that most people who really object to Piss Christ haven't seen it and are objecting based on the title. A person seeing it without knowing what it was would almost certainly take it as a Thomas Kinkade style "painting with light" glowing bit of vaguely attractive if somewhat predictable Christian kitch.

Which is, I suppose, part of the point.

For myself I'm not a big fan, it just doesn't do it for me stylistically, and I don't have a Christian background so I don't have any real investment in the symbolism one way or another.

Which doesn't change the fact that the people who tried to destroy the piece are vile scum of exactly the same ilk as the Talibani who destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas.

Nothing in the universe scares me as much as ecumenicism. Right now the only thing keeping the religious from screwing us entirely is that Muslims and Christians fight each other instead of ganging up on their common enemies (women, gays, weirdos, etc). Like so many things, this incident illustrates that Christian fanatics and Muslim fanatics are essentially the same. If they ever realize that and start cooperating I think we're done for as a species.
posted by sotonohito at 2:01 PM on April 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I didn't mean art that has its own intrinsic value in an artistless, audienceless vacuum, but just art that can be meaningful without someone telling you what it means. Art that speaks for itself, essentially.

This is still a problematic definition, because you seem to be implying that everyone who has derived meaning from Piss Christ has done so on the basis of being told what it means. I suspect that shakespeherian and cross_impact (and the poet that cross_impact cites) and Astro Zombie arrived at their conclusions by looking at the piece and thinking about it on their own. The similarity of their conclusions leads me to believe that Serrano, working with the materials of a particular cultural framework, successfully (and skillfully*) created a piece of art that speaks for itself.

I think your inability to find any compelling meaning in the piece is likely due to the fact that you dismissed it out of hand on account of the piss and your resulting assumption that it's a puerile bit of trolling. A few assumption-free minutes spent with the piece might have gotten you past that association, but who knows? The only thing I can say for sure is that your notion of art that "speaks for itself" is also "nebulous, vague, and wide enough to be borderline meaningless," perhaps even more so than the art you deride. In saying that I'm not trying to make the case that you should like Piss Christ, but rather that I think it merits a more generous reading than you've given it.

* That the piece doesn't indicate anything like technical virtuosity on the part of the artist only enhances what I find to be the amazingly parsimonious manipulation of a small number of conceptual elements to create a fascinating and layered image. It's a different type of skill, but no less valuable.
posted by invitapriore at 2:16 PM on April 19, 2011


I'm confused. Why are we pretending like there's a "right" way to do art? Some artists like painting pictures because they're pretty. Some artists like creating strange conceptual pieces that make a lot more sense once you know the context, or once the artist says, "okay, I made this as a response to an art gallery that let people submit anything without reservation, so I thought it was funny to send in a urinal, and also, I actually have some questions about how we're defining art, and maybe my doing this will give us something to talk about." (And sometimes they're both conceptual and beautiful! Because art's crazy and can be multiple things at once!)

Why are we against artists who like to use words to go along with their images? Are words bad? Is something bad if you have to use words to discuss it. And why the resentment of artwork that requires a contextual understanding? Like, are people walking up to you and loudly insisting that Fountain is a phenomenal piece of art, and then refusing to explain why they think so? Most of the people who I know that love art love talking about their favorite art. If anything, conceptual art is inclusionary in that it promotes socializing and talking over it, rather than just staring at it, emitting a wordless, profound grunt, and moving on.

I didn't think too much of Piss Christ (I didn't think about Piss Christ at all, really) but this conversation has made me appreciate it, both as a beautiful photograph and as a statement about Christianity. I'm thinking now about what a beautiful symbol the cross really is, when you detach it from how gaudily it's used as a social icon. What a poetic thing it is to say that in our grossnesses and weaknesses we are still capable of being divine, and that to a degree we all are divine. Even the least and the loathed.
posted by Rory Marinich at 3:01 PM on April 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


I hope that useful mob goes after that slapper Hypatia next. She's been asking for it for a long time.
posted by meehawl at 3:06 PM on April 19, 2011


It seems to me that both Serrano and his critics just are failing to really see what a crucifix is. It's a representation of a man dying a horrible, gory, shameful, disgusting, painful death. Pissing on it seems so...redundant. As Hudgins's poem mentions, Jesus likely pissed on himself as he was dying.

Or as Old Man Murray put it:

My first thought was that I'd really stick it to the Christian Savior. It's an edgy concept, because it might upset old people like your grandparents and Harrison Ford and, as far as I knew, it hadn't been done before. I decided I'd find a picture of Jesus Christ, have Chet kick me in the nuts, then piss blood all over it. But while I was looking for a suitable portrait, I stumbled across this disturbing image some Internet crackpot made of Jesus nailed to a cross! I was like "Ho-lee Mother of Fucker, somebody beat me to it."

posted by straight at 3:08 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Urine Christ—and Christ is in you.

I look at these protesters, so full of fury and fear, so enraged by and terrified of a photograph that they can't even engage with it—they have to destroy it.

Never mind that their entire faith was founded on His humiliation and degradation. Never mind that the fundamental principles of their religion call for forgiveness, for compassion, for turning the other cheek. Never mind that the only injured parties here are a cheap plastic crucifix and byanyothername's artistic sensibilities.

This was vengeance. This was a counter-attack. Serrano attacked their precious symbol; they attack his. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hammers for piss and a camera and a jar. Graven image for graven image.

I look at these people and I don't see Christians. I see idolaters, worshiping the symbol and rejecting the symbolized. And we know how Jesus felt about that.
posted by Zozo at 3:14 PM on April 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Am I the only one who thinks that Serrano must have been rather dehydrated when he made the piece?
posted by ooga_booga at 3:30 PM on April 19, 2011


It seems to me that both Serrano and his critics just are failing to really see what a crucifix is. It's a representation of a man dying a horrible, gory, shameful, disgusting, painful death. Pissing on it seems so...redundant.

It always struck me that that was the point, that something can't be more shocking than the slow mutilation and death of God. I don't think Serrano missed that point, though, I think that was at least part of the point.
posted by Errant at 3:35 PM on April 19, 2011


Even in acts and works which, on face, appear to be a total rejection, or abdication from 'where' one comes from, the language, symbols, and messages almost always speak in dialogue with culture, community and that creator's formative spaces.
This piece seems far less the 'middle finger' which the vandals, (and some of the more assertive critics of the vandals [I don't believe that the vandals understand the point that several people have made here, and don't like to validate their violence by asserting that this nuanced art was as simplistic as they read it]) wish to portray the situation. It feels like to laud the piece as a simplistic angry middle finger to his upbringing, it is much more of a dialogical piece, and speaks now more than ever to the nuances inherent within even seemingly monolithic culturzeits as Roman Catholic.
Also, Shakespeherian's comment is brilliant.
posted by infinite intimation at 3:46 PM on April 19, 2011


"You view him the same way the Pharisees viewed Christ. Perhaps there's a piece of art somewhere that could inspire some sort of internal dialogue about that very subject... nope! Looks like some fanatically religious people destroyed it. How ironic."

Do you know what a troll is? The Pharisees had a lot to fear in what Christ represented.

I wrote several longish post comments and deleted them. There is more than enough analysis here. But at it's very essence, Piss Christ is nothing more than trolling.

It's a decent photograph. Made by a serious artist, if there is such a thing. It's genuine art. I'll concede anything you want to say about it, because I probably agree with most people about the merits of the work.

But how on Earth is it not a troll piece? You think if it had been immersed in yellow Jell-O and titled "Yellow Jell-O Christ" that this thread would even exist?
posted by Xoebe at 4:46 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


But how on Earth is it not a troll piece? You think if it had been immersed in yellow Jell-O and titled "Yellow Jell-O Christ" that this thread would even exist?

So is everything that provokes a reaction to be called trolling?
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:00 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


So is everything that provokes a reaction to be called trolling?

Rory Marinich, I'd answer that with: "No, everything that is done primarily to provoke a negative reaction is 'trolling.'" It's not the reaction, but the intent, that defines the trolling.

Serrano's work is trolling. That is not to say it is worthless, trivial, or malicious, which the word has come to imply to many of us.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:29 PM on April 19, 2011


How do you know Serrano's intent?
posted by shakespeherian at 5:36 PM on April 19, 2011


Plexiglas? There's your problem, right there. Shields should be made of polycarbonate. Acrylic is for paperweights.
posted by ryanrs at 6:57 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Serrano's work is trolling. That is not to say it is worthless, trivial, or malicious, which the word has come to imply to many of us.

First off, I think that's all the word ever meant. Unless you have proof that Serrano deliberately intended to provoke Catholics into a rage, I don't think "trolling" is the right word, and I think that labeling something a "troll" provokes such an immediate negative reaction that it ought to be used carefully. (There's an argument that calling somebody a troll is the easiest form of trolling.)

Second off, if Serrano wasn't known for his work with bodily fluids already, then maybe you could call him a troll. But this is why context matters in art. If it's consistent with the themes of his other work, then it's not really a shock piece, is it? Even if it's been made into one by a lot of people who misunderstand the work so egregiously that they think it deserves to be ripped up.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:27 PM on April 19, 2011


I wish there were better images available, or if there are I wish I could find them.

I saw a Serrano exhibit years ago after the original Piss Christ controversy had died down. I didn't really care one way about the symbolism and I never pretended to "get" art but those were some of the most beautiful photographs I ever saw.

Not just the series the Piss Christ was part of either, he had a series of portraits of homeless people and another of corpses. He does really wonderful work I highly recommend checking him out if your local museum ever gets an exhibit.
posted by Bonzai at 7:52 PM on April 19, 2011


I think Jesus would be pissed off.

Maybe not? Jesus had a sense of humour.
posted by ovvl at 8:25 PM on April 19, 2011


And regardless of Serrano's intent, who is it apparently 'trolling'? He is identified as a Christian (specifically Roman Catholic) raised artist.

Is he trolling the vandals, because they don't follow the logical conclusions of the piece (the ideas that follow from "making flesh" of God, in a man, who... has body, and bodily function?)
But, now, to have this discussion, you have to talk in the language of "God", Jesus, human kind... Sin, virtue, redemption, forgiveness &c. which many peopel do not come to do, rather, many come to cheer on the idea of "throwing piss in the faces of them ign'ant b'leivers." -this seems to be a widespread "reading" of this piece. It seems, however, to be an incorrect reading of this piece. -all "shocking" art is not "shock art". Shock qua Shock.

Here is the thing about good shock art. "Good" shock art (my conception) is art that speaks in the language, and in the imagery of those who it is for. Even if it is Provocative, or hard to see, or causes self-doubt, it is intended to cause furtherance of consideration, to open up perspectives, even if at first the reaction is that it is not "right". It is for himself, for a Christian, lapsed, reformed, practicing, doubting, devout or otherwise; he is not (as I read it) trying to degrade himself, he is trying to elevate the external discourse on the ideas, conceptions, and understandings of people in an arena that is notoriously difficult to speak radically, or reformationally (heh, yeah, that was a big, radical divergence event in recent history right? Guess what, they weren't saying that "The Church" was fundamentally wrong on the big picture, or even many of the nuances, they were expressing variation on some nuances and manner of expression) from within.

Meanwhile, weak (again, only my conception) shock art is something facile, something intended merely to, as I noted this piece seems designed to not do, attempts to piss on some target, someone who the outsider hates, or doesn't care for from a hair on the back of a camel, some group, or person who is likely to give rise to bait, and react poorly; as in trolling, as in "some jerk, with no connection to giving a flying hoot about any Muslim person, seeking only to belittle, get rise, and ultimately, show how "notlikeme" their target is. Like Terry Jones burning Qur'an. Like the Phelps signs... that is perfect example of the weak shock art I refer to [no diss implied to whoever it was that suggested that hypothetical in this particular thread, such happens everywhere, all the time].

Or is he supposed to be trolling the people who leap to his side because they giddily think he is "mocking blasphemy", or "spitting vitriol and piss at the big bad Church power". when close readings of it deeply suggest he is not doing.

Both 'sides' don't see that there are more ways than just the two "obvious" sides. The "saying hateful things is ok if they are bad" side doesn't get that it isn't supposed to be hurtful. And the "blasphemy" side doesn't get that it isn't supposed to be blasphemy.

It is this ambiguity which leads me to think... hmm, so, is he trolling himself? No. If people believe he were trolling "christians", it would be a self troll. Self trolling defeats the trolling purpose of getting a rise. I'd suggest not a troll.

Trolling seems the wrong term. Provoking reflection? It is true; the "good" shock art I described is "provoking reflection", and the "weak" shock art I described is equatable with "trolling".
But there are definite lines and delineation between the two; the above given example "lamenting" how 'a different story if we did this with Mohammed imagery'... misses the point widely, that they aren't at all similar hypotheticals, and comparing them seems like just another chance to say "but THOSE guys, THEY would flip out", (even though this is a clear case of the "taking imagery [too] seriously right here, without needing to make up how "someone would react during some other hypothetical" - a hypothetical that would be akin to trolling, wheras this is shocking art, not trolling).

This guy is a Christian, right, speaking in the language of Christian symbology, and semiotic packages, he is speaking to, and with people who would seek to push him out of the wider "in-group" of Christianity... and some who would embrace him; which, as shown here all the time, and in various places where the diversity within groups that are generally seen as singular is on display ( I mean, there are gay Christians, and gay Muslims; we don't think that 'they' are all just "self-hating", or that "they" all speak, think and generate dialogue in the same "language", or use the same symbols and conceptions as Fred Phelps, right)?

Martin Luther wrote in terms and conceptions which were intimately farmilliar to the people of the Church at the time. The words, and ideas were still, then, seen as vehemently offensive to people who didn't leave the Church, or seek reformation. Same (er, similar) as is happening here.

Just because he isn't acting like the "big names" (Haggard & co.), or like the ones who get all the attention (Phelps and daughtersons)... doesn't mean that he isn't in dialogue with them (or rather, the millions of others who are not like those radicals and outliers, and aggressors, but are seeking the myriad middle ways; a discussion in abstraction, through art, and ultimately, interpretation. And yes, art is partially about the point of interface between creation, and observer. Creator, created, and observers. There are often several layers of interplay.

Whether or not he is a "believer" right now (I do not know, and really don't think it is valuable to "quiz" people on it, faith loses it's rigidity, flexibility, and strength [just as making a person who doesn't really eat meat IDENTIFY as a vegan, it limits people, and makes stress, and doubt, and weakness, and I know that I always ate more meat after being made to "declare" myself "vegetarian" or not] when it is made to be explicated, parsed and or apologized for actions of oblique others); the language, the way of seeing, the terminologies, the patterns, and possibly the 'self'/identity-creation frameworks, are operating upon who he is, as is with us all, wherever we culturally "come" from. Good or bad, we take with us into our later life that which surrounded us in formational youth, some of us stress certain elements, and sometimes people raised beside us highight other aspects, but the frameworks are not "inherent" to each individual, they are derived and in dialogical development with our culture and community (it is akin to how trauma can last lifetimes, and so to can first loves be remembered, even felt, long after any connection to the person exists).

tl;dr, Multiculturalism=InTER group diversity. Polyculturalism=InTRA group diversity.
posted by infinite intimation at 8:35 PM on April 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Rory Marinich: I'm confused. Why are we pretending like there's a "right" way to do art?

I think it's because discussions of art, like most discussions, can get emotional. There are those who deem "easy" art not worthy ("My kid could do that!"), the division between High and Low arts (with derision for "folk" art), the statement pieces ("You only did that to get a rise out of me!"), and of course heated topics (religion, in this case). Someone can latch onto any (or all) of these elements and claim to Understand Art, and have a position to judge others.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:41 PM on April 19, 2011


P.P.S: Semiotic packages is a metaphor for pee.
and an awesome new band name
posted by infinite intimation at 8:53 PM on April 19, 2011


0xFCAF: "I think anyone seeing it for less than that has taken their own immediate reaction to the medium to the extreme and not stopped to actually consider what they're seeing, what it means, and how we can use it as a focal point to think about our relationship to religion and humanity."

Astro Zombie: "You can either rise to the challenge that this sort of art demands, or you can just make a series of assumptions about it, never check them, and grab your hammer and screwdriver and just start breaking things. Or you can stay home and not bother yourself about the art."

sotonohito: "I strongly suspect that most people who really object to Piss Christ haven't seen it and are objecting based on the title."

invitapriore: "I think your inability to find any compelling meaning in the piece is likely due to the fact that you dismissed it out of hand on account of the piss and your resulting assumption that it's a puerile bit of trolling."

I don't agree. This attitude steered me away from contemporary art for many years. It's possible to be a thoughtful consumer of art and yet dislike contemporary visual art and in fact, some responses in this thread do exactly that.
posted by yaymukund at 9:49 PM on April 19, 2011


As to "Piss Christ" being serious art, well, I think it is, but who says art has to be serious?

I don't think it's serious. I rather like it as an image, just for the color, texture and so forth. But as Orson Welles asked - it's pretty, but is it art? And the answer is no, it's not. The reason is that it doesn't have any impact absent its title. If you just showed it to people you had screened for their lack of cultural awareness they'd see a blurry rendering of a crucifix; it's unlikely that more than one person in ten would identify it as fresh urine and evaluate the image in the same way as someone who knows the title.

Thus, it fails because a static image shouldn't need a textual signifier. The visual effect could have been achieved if the print featured a giant cock or vulva raining piss upon a crucifix. The conceptual effect could have been achieved by the title Piss Christ sited beneath a covered (but otherwise empty) frame. But Serrano chickened out of doing either. Instead we get a dull picture with a controversial title, the equivalent of having the artist effectively saying: 'Guess what medium I used to get that pretty orange tint. Go on, just ask me then! I know you're secretly dying to find out! Well alright then, I'll tell you! It's PEE! Daring, huh!!'

It's not art. It's show and tell.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:21 PM on April 19, 2011


it fails because a static image shouldn't need a textual signifier

Why? Where does that rule come from?
posted by shakespeherian at 5:19 AM on April 20, 2011


It's possible to be a thoughtful consumer of art and yet dislike contemporary visual art

No it isn't. You have literally just dismissed a million pieces of art, all very different from each other, by clumping them under one clearinghouse phrase. That's about as thoughtful as saying "I don't like jazz."

You don't have to like it, but if you hand wave it away, you're not being a thoughtful consumer or critic.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:01 AM on April 20, 2011


anigbrowl: Thus, it fails because a static image shouldn't need a textual signifier.

Is that what makes Thomas Kinkade successful? You don't need to read the title A New Day at the Cinderella Castle to understand the picture. It's a pretty castle, under a rainbow, with a swan on the lake in the foreground. ART!

Why isn't the title part of the art, part of the over-all presentation?
posted by filthy light thief at 8:12 AM on April 20, 2011


Astro Zombie: "You have literally just dismissed a million pieces of art, all very different from each other, by clumping them under one clearinghouse phrase."

But we all do this to some degree. People in this thread have dismissed "advertising" and "propaganda" and you dismissed all "art that trolls for the lulz."
posted by yaymukund at 8:18 AM on April 20, 2011


In other words, no matter how you define art, you will have genres that fall outside its boundaries— many diverse and varied genres! That shouldn't stop us from defining and enjoying art and you shouldn't sneer at anybody who defines it differently.
posted by yaymukund at 8:20 AM on April 20, 2011


If you're going to sneer at art, don't balk when you get sneered at. Sneering is a two way street.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:44 AM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


But we all do this to some degree. People in this thread have dismissed "advertising" and "propaganda" and you dismissed all "art that trolls for the lulz."

I looked for all of your references in the thread and I can't really find any dismissal going on. We've all consumed "advertising" and "propaganda" and art that "trolls for the lulz," and I would be surprised if none of us could admit to getting something worthwhile out of all of them at some point. I think you're the only one, so far, who has drawn such explicit lines between the things you will and will not give consideration to.

Really, though, I'm still confused as to why you're opposed to the idea that some art's value might increase with the application of a little analysis. It's a different mode of art-making from the kind that is more concerned with transparency, true, but I don't know why any lover of art would be against a greater multiplicity of ways to make art.

In any case, I don't think I'd call the reactions you're getting "sneering"; it's more like the frustration you get when you've ordered a dish at a restaurant that you really like and you ask your friend to try it and they say no because it's a funny color. I'd like to think that I'd try your food.
posted by invitapriore at 8:52 AM on April 20, 2011


AZ: There's a difference between having an opinion at art— which is produced specifically to be criticized and enjoyed— and dismissing all the people who might dislike it.

invitapriore: I'm not sure where you're reading all that about me (cite?). I'm only now learning to enjoy contemporary art, but I've liked, thought about, and created art for a long time. Likewise, even when I disliked contemporary art I had enjoyed some of it.
posted by yaymukund at 9:01 AM on April 20, 2011


I am not demising people. Don't make this personal. I am dismissing their opinion. Once stated in public, opinions are likewise open to scrutiny and disagreement.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:14 AM on April 20, 2011


it fails because a static image shouldn't need a textual signifier

"Ceci n'est pas une pipe"
posted by hippybear at 9:23 AM on April 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Which doesn't change the fact that the people who tried to destroy the piece are vile scum of exactly the same ilk as the Talibani who destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas.

Speaking of which: Afghanistan's archaeological treasures face a new threat
posted by homunculus at 9:27 AM on April 20, 2011


Why isn't the title part of the art, part of the over-all presentation?

For the reasons I provided in the rest of the paragraph. Also, nobody puts title cards on their own walls. Nobody respects language in titles. Titles are incidental to the impression the work makes. Titles are mounted on the wall by museum and gallery staff, and I have yet to encounter a work in which the artist supplied details instructions for carrying out this operation.

As I said, if you want to make the textual signifier an integral part of the work, then you don't need the pictorial part at all; an empty frame or a frame with a curtain over it would have been far more provocative. Take your fatuous Thomas Kincade comparison back to the discount rhetoric outlet you got it from; there is plenty of art that engages and challenges the viewer without any need of a title - in the photographic space, Robert Mapplethorpe's imagery is entirely capable of arresting the viewer without any reliance on text. Or go down the Damien Hirst route and exhibit an actual jar of piss with a crucifix in it. But a close-up photograph of a jar of piss with a coy little title card? 'I made a wee-wee on Jesus!'
posted by anigbrowl at 10:26 AM on April 20, 2011


Take your fatuous Thomas Kincade comparison back to the discount rhetoric outlet you got it from;

You know, if you're going to speak down to people who try to engage you in discussion, you might try to have a better argument than "I this sort of art is bad because it doesn't obey arbitrary rule that I just made up."

If textural signifiers weren't important, artists wouldn't name their art -- some don't. Just because they don't specify how the placard is to be placed doesn't mean they consider the placard, or the name of the piece, unimportant. I often don't put stage directions into plays I write, but that doesn't mean that play is meant to be understood as text without movement, and any movement added in is extraneous and ruins the play.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:44 AM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Ceci n'est pas une pipe"

...is a pictorial element, not sitting adjacent to a painting on a gallery wall. On the other hand, if you say you like Zonnebloemen, most people outside of the Netherlands won't know what you mean offhand, even though they would immediately recognize Van Gogh's Sunflowers if they saw it. Duchamp's Fountain isn't effective because of its name, it's effective because it's a urinal mounted on a gallery wall. Likewise, The Air and the Song or The Two Mysteries would function perfectly well even if they were displayed anonymously.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:45 AM on April 20, 2011


Astro Zombie: "I am not demising people. Don't make this personal. I am dismissing their opinion."

If you're going to say my comments are "making it personal," please take it to MetaTalk or Mefi mail.

The criticism of art isn't the same as a criticism of all the people who hold a certain opinion on the art. It's possible to defend contemporary art very well without resorting to the latter, and it'd make it more approachable for people unfamiliar with the genre.
posted by yaymukund at 10:48 AM on April 20, 2011


there is plenty of art that engages and challenges the viewer without any need of a title - in the photographic space, Robert Mapplethorpe's imagery is entirely capable of arresting the viewer without any reliance on text. Or go down the Damien Hirst route and exhibit an actual jar of piss with a crucifix in it.

I don't understand this. Yes, plenty of art manages to create an effect without a title. How does that translate to your assertion that no art should incorporate its title into creating effect?

But a close-up photograph of a jar of piss with a coy little title card? 'I made a wee-wee on Jesus!'

You know, plenty of people have stated why, in this thread, this is not the only or even most obvious or even, probably, intended effect of this work. I think you should go back up and read some of them before you assume that the point of Piss Christ is 'I made a wee-wee on Jesus!' and then attempt to dismiss it on those terms.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:55 AM on April 20, 2011


...is a pictorial element, not sitting adjacent to a painting on a gallery wall. On the other hand, if you say you like Zonnebloemen, most people outside of the Netherlands won't know what you mean offhand, even though they would immediately recognize Van Gogh's Sunflowers if they saw it. Duchamp's Fountain isn't effective because of its name, it's effective because it's a urinal mounted on a gallery wall. Likewise, The Air and the Song or The Two Mysteries would function perfectly well even if they were displayed anonymously.

I'm pretty sure that a whole fucking lot of meaning is lost if we look at Michelangelo's sculpture of David as just a naked young man. A lot of the discussion surrounding that work centers on what it means that David, as he goes to fight Goliath, is naked, the expression on his face, etc. Without the title (or at least the not-a-concrete-part-of-the-work-idea-of-who-is-depicted), all of that discussion is impossible.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:59 AM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The criticism of art isn't the same as a criticism of all the people who hold a certain opinion on the art.

I am not criticizing the person. I am criticizing their opinion. I am not clear why you are failing to make the distinction.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:03 AM on April 20, 2011


Duchamp's Fountain isn't effective because of its name, it's effective because it's a urinal mounted on a gallery wall.

Wow. Going to have to go ahead and disagree with you there. The name is a large part of what makes it a massive recontextualization of a ready made, and a big part of the fun of the piece, just as his " To be looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour" works, in part, because of its name.

You're working overtime to make the case that the titles of pieces don't matter. They do. It's why artists name pieces.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:05 AM on April 20, 2011


You know, if you're going to speak down to people who try to engage you in discussion, you might try to have a better argument than "I this sort of art is bad because it doesn't obey arbitrary rule that I just made up."

It's not arbitrary at all, which is why I presented several alternative - a fully documentary photograph, or presenting the work as sculpture, or taking the text as the central element of the work. The problem with Piss Christ is not that it has a controversial title, it's that the whole is less than the sum of the parts. I read about with interest when it came out (and still hold a grudge against the GOP for using it as an excuse to defund the NEA), but seeing the work itself was a distinct anticlimax. It is utterly pedestrian.

Tell me honestly: if it had been presented as an untitled work, how much attention would it have gotten? What is I made a similar picture called Christ, Honey and put it on the opposite wall? Do you think people would react to the two pictures very differently? If not, then isn't the photograph superfluous to the reaction evoked by the title, and couldn't I cause just as much controversy by hanging a curtain or 'displaying' an empty frame inside a viewing booth which only accommodated a single person?
posted by anigbrowl at 11:06 AM on April 20, 2011


if it had been presented as an untitled work, how much attention would it have gotten?

Well, you've just made the case for the importance of a title. In order for you to have me believe the piece is pedestrian without its title -- I disagree, by the way -- you have to convince me that the title is unimportant. But your case seems to primarily be that it's unimportant because you think it shouldn't be important.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:09 AM on April 20, 2011


I'm strangely pleased -- and proud -- that this has turned into a spirited debate about art rather than religion. (Maybe it's because what shakesperian said was so damn awesome it covered everything and everyone said "yeah, i agree".)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:13 AM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Tell me honestly: if it had been presented as an untitled work, how much attention would it have gotten?

Probably not much, obviously. And if it had been called "Piss Christ" but had not been a visually interesting work it would also probably have gone not very far. The interplay between the title and the work IS the work. It's OK if it isn't your particular box of cookies, but it clearly is a compelling idea, well executed, and is successful by any reasonable metric.
posted by dirtdirt at 11:17 AM on April 20, 2011


yaymukund, I based that characterization on you saying "I don't agree" in reply to a group of comments that were urging critics to drop the assumption that Piss Christ a simple bit of trolling and spend some time thinking about its components before dismissing it, in the belief that those critics might come out of that process a little less certain that it's as cut and dry as "I made a wee-wee on Jesus," even if they still didn't like it. I interpreted "I don't agree" and your subsequent writing in that comment as "I don't think this piece merits an attempt at further analysis and I don't like the contemporary art scene because it often insists that the value of its products is contained mostly in their analysis."
posted by invitapriore at 11:36 AM on April 20, 2011


anigbrowl: seeing the work itself was a distinct anticlimax. It is utterly pedestrian.

I find that part of the charm, especially when framed against the anger thrown at the photograph. It brings the filth of humanity to Christ, without shoving nails in his feet and showing the blood dripping down.

And I'll be honest - I'm confused as to how presenting the work as sculpture would shift the piece from "show and tell" into "art"?

To be clear, I think Damien Hirst is an overvalued twat, but that's probably because I read about his Hymn piece, which scaled up a Young Scientist Male Anatomy Set, so perhaps that's where we're at odds.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:01 PM on April 20, 2011


I love the smell of the Dunning–Kruger effect in the afternoon.
posted by Zozo at 12:22 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure that a whole fucking lot of meaning is lost if we look at Michelangelo's sculpture of David as just a naked young man. A lot of the discussion surrounding that work centers on what it means that David, as he goes to fight Goliath, is naked, the expression on his face, etc. Without the title (or at least the not-a-concrete-part-of-the-work-idea-of-who-is-depicted), all of that discussion is impossible.

Bollocks. There's tons of art from the ancient world that doesn't have any names that we know of, and is referred to in descriptive terms. It isn't any less evocative or stimulating for that. David would be a magnificent work of art even if we didn't know who it was supposed to depict. As you are probably aware, artists of the Renaissance produced lots of religious works because it was politically and financially expedient to do so. Nobody knows the exact name of the sculpture commonly known in English as Laocoön and His Sons, but in Italian referred to as The Laocoön Group and something I can't remember in French. You don't need to know the title of this to engage with it. Its artistic value lies in the unmediated communication between sculptor and observer.

You're working overtime to make the case that the titles of pieces don't matter. They do. It's why artists name pieces.

It's one reason to do so; others include helping the public and gallery owner to identify which painting they're talking about rather than 'that nice one with the bright colors,' and making it easier for them to tell other people about your art: 'What do you think of #73? Wow, the colors, the shapes, the depth of engagement with the subject - magnificent!' 'I don't know, it doesn't really hit me the way #46 does.' 'Philistines! Look at the variety of ideas on display in #57!'

I hate titling my own work and find requests that I do so or conversations about what it 'means' almost insufferable. Although I can only speak for myself, art doesn't 'mean' anything. I create pictures or music to express feelings, and while I am interested and gratified to hear about any feelings it evokes in other people, discussions about semantics make me want to run screaming out of the room or take up work in a new medium - Untitled, blood on breeze blocks, 7' x 12' (2011). When I want to say something I speak or write; when I express myself in other media that doesn't mean I'm suffering from some sort of speech impediment. I like discussing art with children because they make qualitative statements about how they experience the art or about the way it's made. When people want to talk about the title or what it means I'm pretty sure that I've failed to engage them with the work itself - if so, I'd much rather they it's no good and move on. Maybe I should use titles like how about five thousand dollars?

Titles have their place, there are many works whose meanings are deepened or whose whimsy is more enjoyable with the additional context of their titles - a recent favorite of mine being Lonesome Cowboy. But when you assert that they're indivisible aspects of the work, the corollary to that is that works of unknown title or provenance lack artistic value because of their incomplete context - an obvious absurdity. If it doesn't work in any way without the title - and I assert that this is the case with Piss Christ - then maybe the visual component is superfluous and the essence of the work is as an installation rather than as a picture.
posted by anigbrowl at 12:22 PM on April 20, 2011


I hate titling my own work and find requests that I do so or conversations about what it 'means' almost insufferable.

Well, that's your prerogative, but, again, I don't see how your personal tastes and arbitrary rules should determine what is and isn't worth a damn in the rest of the art world. I mean, it's fine that you don't like work that relies on additional text for its meaning, but the truth is, a good amount of work from the 30th century does exactly that, and I try not to dismiss other people's work out of hand because I made up a rule it doesn't live up to.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:26 PM on April 20, 2011


When we get to the 30th century, you'll see what I mean.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:27 PM on April 20, 2011


Wait up; the idea that "titles don't (or 'shouldn't) count" towards how one looks at, comprehends, perceives, appreciates, critiques, hates, loves or simply examines a singular "piece", is not making sense; first, what about a series?

The sequence is not "an image element", they are "on" a distinct and separate "canvas"; do we not look at the three, and examine their interplay? Their relationship? The message of each, and also the message of each as it speaks to the message of each other?

Does the mental state of Picasso not factor into how we evaluate, what we look for, or what we see, in one work as opposed to another? Or, are we not look at the novel written by the young man with different eyes than we look at the novel of the same author in old age?

Second, the idea of "one artist", "one medium" is troubling, or limiting, or seems arbitrary to me; some musicians also draw, and make their album cover (or make a visually compelling video, or a book), I would see that as a bi-medium work, to be considered together, some novelists paint, or illustrate, I would have to consider both as companions, particularly if the artist presented them as such, some painters write essays, are political, or make artist statements (the creation of which, it is worth noting, is actually part of "Visual Arts" post-secondary, bachelors and masters training [including the training of professional art critics, who by no means all "love" concept/modern art]).

The famous early biology, and taxonomy works... are we to segregate the "biological taxonomy", from the beautiful art that is interspersed within? To me, they are two sides of same coin, and would lose meaning, and worth, were they forced apart.

Having a "there" there is something that is essentially expected; sometimes the "there" is spelled out by the image on the canvas, other times, it is spelled out by what is actually absent.... Just as some artists only "make use" of what is known as "positive space", while others do incredible work solely with the "negative space" on a canvas. Some artists may in fact "say" things by the absence of title, or context; this is why it is not making sense to desire to "line up" every single piece, and just "compare" two works... the ability to do comparison is valuable, but it is not a logical "measure" of worth. Picasso is not Leonardo. I wouldn't put one of the anatomy pieces up next to these, and go, LOL, Obviously this SUKX!

This concept of "one artist, one piece, one image" creates an unstated demand that a piece "say everything it has to say right on the cover". The "cover art" on a novel doesn't speak the whole message of the sequential words inside the covers, but it can, and often does, add context, or tease a reader, or draw a reader in to want to read, or remind someone who read it long ago of the story, and in the simple second of seeing the cover, the whole 300 pages can come rushing back... retrieved, and coming to interplay with the "simple singular" image. Just as someone making collage from the words of a novel are not simply trying to "copy" the novel, but rather, to make some comment, or note a peculiarity.

But then; “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth”, so, yeah, it really possibly could be done with yellow dyes, and "faked" (this would not make sense at all for this particular artist, as the medium is one he has tinkled with and used for ages). But "yellow dye", instead of pee, doesn't change the piece, in the way the hypothetical "comparable" piece (Honey) would; the simple reason being, they aren't comparable, because one is a piece that "you" are creating... so, if "you" had a "reason" to make that piece, or it was part of your larger body of "X, honey" works... then we could talk, but it doesn't make sense to offer up pieces that are not ones that this particular artist created, in the context of "their mind".

I mean, sure the "idea" could be replicated, but first, he already did it, and second, there is a "context" of that particular man, with his particular mind, and particular raising, upbringing, and (I would say as a very important part), this particular man has made very particular statements, in interviews, and essays, and commentary, and titles... which actually are very different from the "hypothetical other artist". The imagined "honey" art piece actually could be interesting on the scale of "making commentary on what one sees in the work of Serrano (though I think it would be a misinterpretation), but they still wouldn't be logically "comparable" in concept.
I am an artist first and a photographer second. My "medium" is the world of ideas that I seek to present in a visually cohesive fashion. I think of myself as a conceptualist with a camera. In other words, I like to take the pictures in my head that may or may not have anything to do with photography.

My use of the medium—photography—is in some ways traditional. At the same time it is very unconventional. The photography critic Andy Grunberg pointed out that I am not that technical, that I don't care about printing. I feel as though I am anti-photography because I have no interest in the medium except as a means to an end. I am interested only in the final image. At the same time, my role as an artist leads me to want to pursue subjects that generate the tensions we talked about. I think my technique is a comment on my subjects and on photography. I say things, but I say them indirectly. At the same time, I try to make my images as direct as possible.
This quote by Serrano is interesting, particularly in the context of the body of his work as a whole (you see he is far from timid, or shying away from "showing the gritty/ugly", he said exactly what he meant with the piece in question, as this interview shows, with just some of the thinking behind it). The artist must be good at looking; they needn't make something good looking. Seeing what is not there is actually not something that everyone can do (this is not to belittle anyone who likes concreteness [this 'skill' to excess being suggestive of illness]).
posted by infinite intimation at 12:31 PM on April 20, 2011


Titles have their place, there are many works whose meanings are deepened or whose whimsy is more enjoyable with the additional context of their titles - a recent favorite of mine being Lonesome Cowboy. But when you assert that they're indivisible aspects of the work, the corollary to that is that works of unknown title or provenance lack artistic value because of their incomplete context - an obvious absurdity. If it doesn't work in any way without the title - and I assert that this is the case with Piss Christ - then maybe the visual component is superfluous and the essence of the work is as an installation rather than as a picture.

Your corollary is a mistaken assertion. If titles have their place, and if some works require them to be complete, then the artistic statement is equally complete if a piece doesn't have a title. There's no flip-side to the coin of artistic expression which says that if A is true, then Not-A is also true.

What I would object to, if I were an artist, would be if I turned in a bunch of untitled works and went to a gallery and discovered they'd all had little "Untitled" placards put on the wall near them. If you hang a card next to a work which says the name of the work is "Untitled", then I assume the artist has named the world "Untitled" for whatever reason. Works could have cards next to them which list the materials used and maybe even the price, but unless an artist says "I want this piece to be called 'Untitled'", then no museum or gallery has any right to put that next to the work.

However, if an artist says that he wants a photograph of the moon rising over a river "Midnight Dream Of Fear", then I should put that next to the painting. Because at that point, the artistic statement includes the title, for whatever reason.

I hate titling my own work and find requests that I do so or conversations about what it 'means' almost insufferable.

If you'd said this at the beginning of your comments in this thread, we all would have known that you're arguing from your own artistic position and not trying to make universal statements about art and titles, and we could have dispensed with a lot of the back-and-forth.
posted by hippybear at 12:44 PM on April 20, 2011


Heh, interestingly, your work appears to in fact be a perfect example of Meaning in absence; your preference for a lack of titles is not an "a-positional", "meh", or "lack of meaning" rather than "art doesn't 'mean' anything." -You state immediately after what it means to have a titled work.
I create pictures or music to express feelings, and while I am interested and gratified to hear about any feelings it evokes in other people, discussions about semantics make me want to run screaming out of the room or take up work in a new medium - Untitled, blood on breeze blocks, 7' x 12' (2011).
This is part of your work. This is factored into your choice to not title, to be upset, or disapointed when people try to constrain, or label, or derive meaning, where you wished simply to... create something to see?

But even then, why is it that you "want" someone to "see" "something" you "made". It is an "act" to create. It is not a passive existence. I don't know, but an action (like making an art), to me, seems far removed from "not making an art". There is a wide gulf between "not hinting at dual meanings", and simply "not making action and creating" something.
posted by infinite intimation at 12:47 PM on April 20, 2011


Bollocks. There's tons of art from the ancient world that doesn't have any names that we know of, and is referred to in descriptive terms. It isn't any less evocative or stimulating for that. David would be a magnificent work of art even if we didn't know who it was supposed to depict. As you are probably aware, artists of the Renaissance produced lots of religious works because it was politically and financially expedient to do so. Nobody knows the exact name of the sculpture commonly known in English as Laocoön and His Sons, but in Italian referred to as The Laocoön Group and something I can't remember in French. You don't need to know the title of this to engage with it. Its artistic value lies in the unmediated communication between sculptor and observer.

Again, all you seem to be arguing here is that titles are not necessary to get something out of works of art, and I agree. However, my argument is that titles can and do add immensely to some works of art, and that that is a known quantity in art criticism and appreciation. I have not ever said that titles are necessary to get anything out of any pieces of art. And that seems to be what you're pushing back against.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:59 PM on April 20, 2011


Well, you've just made the case for the importance of a title. In order for you to have me believe the piece is pedestrian without its title -- I disagree, by the way -- you have to convince me that the title is unimportant.

That is the very opposite of what I am saying. I like the photograph somewhat independently of the title. I like the juxtaposition of the profane and the divine that inheres in the title. This title applied to this image is what's pedestrian about it. If anything, it's anti-art rather than anti-religion, because it shuts down any lines of speculative or imaginative inquiry.

But your case seems to primarily be that it's unimportant because you think it shouldn't be important.

QFT.

Probably not much, obviously. And if it had been called "Piss Christ" but had not been a visually interesting work it would also probably have gone not very far. The interplay between the title and the work IS the work. It's OK if it isn't your particular box of cookies, but it clearly is a compelling idea, well executed, and is successful by any reasonable metric.

We partly agree. I too think it's an interesting idea, but I find the execution deeply unsatisfying, and think it would have been much more interesting without the visual component. If it was more visually direct, then it could have been called #234 and been just as controversial. Or if it is all about the imagination stirred up by the title, then I've provided various examples of conceptual framings where the lack of a visual would have challenged viewers by confronting them with the mechanism of projection itself. But it doesn't really do either.

It brings the filth of humanity to Christ

Would that that were true. As I said, I found the actual picture lamentably uninteresting compared to promise of the title.

And I'll be honest - I'm confused as to how presenting the work as sculpture would shift the piece from "show and tell" into "art"?

The photograph is blurry vague. Could be a damaged negative, could be a lot of different things. 'Hmm, I wonder what this is. Where's the little card? Piss...Christ? What does...oh! I'm having a reaction!' Zzzzz. A jar of piss, on the other hand...people know pretty well what piss looks like. Christ on a crucifix reduced to insignificant proportions and sitting in a jar of piss doesn't need a title. People would put it together while contemplating the work itself. Admittedly that would probably have led to riots or at least fistfights, but it would have had much greater art value.

If you doubt this, pee in a bottle or jar and seal a cap on it, then leave it somewhere around eye level (so people can spot it, not trip over it). Hide somewhere and observe people's reactions - there will be plenty of them, even without anything in the vessel. Hell, set up a camera on a tripod with a long lens and you've got a whole photo essay.

I continue to think the concept of Piss Christ is very much worthwhile. It's the half-hearted and painfully literalist execution that annoys me so much. At this point the only interesting questions are whether the vessel was a jar or a beaker, and what happened to the props afterwards.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:14 PM on April 20, 2011


At this point the only interesting questions are whether the vessel was a jar or a beaker, and what happened to the props afterwards.

So you think this was the question that infuriated people so much that they shattered it with a hammer?

The title of the piece does not shut down investigation so much as it raises new questions. And, for Serrano, the question he was exploring wasn't "what is this an image of," but "what does it mean when traditionally beautiful or sacred iconography is submerged in body fluids."

That's a worthwhile question. For me, it's a far more interesting question than "is that a bad negative." And by titling it, he let us know what question he was investigating.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:19 PM on April 20, 2011


"controversial" is something that "you" desire to derive from it though, and it is not evident that this is at all something he saw, wanted, believed, or intended (as in the interview linked, where he says "I am a Christian artist", I think it is beautiful", "I think it should be displayed in Christian spaces", and "It was most beautiful when it was displayed in a Church, which did gallery showings"

versus the "more direct" (based on your previous comment) which would involve "seeing" someone actively peeing on the symbol.

But do you see how that is different imagery from being within urine (as in, there is very different meaning between "submerged in urine" [possibly intimating, and based on his writing, intended to be the urine of the person on the cross], as opposed to "symbols of Christianity" being urinated on by visible genitals of "somebody".
posted by infinite intimation at 1:30 PM on April 20, 2011


It's an interesting question, but I'm going to bow out of discussing the effect a title has on a piece. This is obviously a matter of personal preference, and people are welcome to their own preference.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:39 PM on April 20, 2011


[Untitled, blood on breeze blocks, 7' x 12' (2011)] is part of your work. This is factored into your choice to not title, to be upset, or disapointed when people try to constrain, or label, or derive meaning, where you wished simply to... create something to see?

Very much so. But when you go into a gallery and see details of the media next to a work to which the artist has simply not given a title, I don't see that as some sort of unwarranted projection by the gallery curator - it's just the basic identifying information that allows one to catalog a work and find it in a warehouse if someone calls up a few years later asking to buy it or so. In a perfect world you could title your art or just put it on display somewhere, and let people come up with their own way of referring to it. But in reality space is limited so a lot of art has to sit around in warehouses and shipping containers until someone develops sufficient interest to locate and unpack it, if ever.

I admit that this is very much a personal position, and that it's an anti-social one.

I have not ever said that titles are necessary to get anything out of any pieces of art. And that seems to be what you're pushing back against.

True on both counts. What I am saying in relation to Piss Christ is that there is very little to it other than the title, and what is there is boringly literalist. The reason I compared with a kid saying 'I made a wee-wee on Jesus' is not because of any religious response it evokes in me but because it has the same non-sequiteur quality that many childish announcements do. An unprocessed roll of film with the same title would have been vastly more stimulating. People would have been breaking into the museum in an attempt to pull the film out and expose it in order to prevent the picture from being developed and witnessed, as if it were some sort of blasphemous virus. Or it could have been on 8mm slide film, viewable only with the aid of an outsize magnifying glass. It offends me in the same fashion as a cool brand name for a dull product.

The title of the piece does not shut down investigation so much as it raises new questions. And, for Serrano, the question he was exploring wasn't "what is this an image of," but "what does it mean when traditionally beautiful or sacred iconography is submerged in body fluids."

Yes. It's the uninteresting nature of the picture itself which shuts down the provocative questions raised by the title - a point which I think is borne out by infinite intimation's quote of Serrano above in which he says that perhaps he is anti-photography. The visual is so boring that it's superfluous, and serves only to halt any intellectual or imaginative flights of fancy evoked by the title.

Fortunately, there's an escape hatch; there's no copyright interest in a title, so I encourage other artists to make their own Piss Christs in sympathy with Serrano and beleagured artists everywhere, so that Serrano can finally be recognized for his genuine skill at coming up with provocative titles. I am sure I would like more of his photography, if he had more than one picture on his website (nsfw). I like this visually. I'm marginally interested in the fact that it's a turd of some sort. But I can't help picturing a 4 year old Serrano saying 'You like it? Can you guess what it is? It's poop! You like poop!' before running away laughing. I dunno, maybe that's his point.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:57 PM on April 20, 2011


I am sure I would like more of his photography, if he had more than one picture on his website (nsfw).

I agree with some of your points but this is being willfully obtuse for the sake of argument. More Serrano pics. I'm partial to the cube of brains, myself.
posted by benzenedream at 5:13 PM on April 20, 2011


I've seen other pictures of his, including a few of these. I just thought it was odd that he only has a single picture and no links on his website.
posted by anigbrowl at 5:54 PM on April 20, 2011


More famous awesome urine... Mystery Explained: Glow in Night Sky Was Astronaut Urine.

Sorry to use definite statements anigbrowl, I just wanted to clarify that anything I said was just either my opinion or derivative of someone else, I should not have used absolute, or such definite statements. Didn't mean to quote you, and bring it out of context. I didn't couch statements in saying enough just how I could be fully wrong. Art really is individual. And my thoughts really only apply to what I see.

About Serrano's work, how much of a twist would it be to turn out to be a blind prediction and in fact mankind will one day be made saved by the very urine collection waste reclamation depots which humans create to deal with the messiness of being human. Imagine a bustling central boulevard, bathed in a gentle, but stunnin g golden glow of amber gold urinePhosphor-co lanterns... and urine hydrogen extraction plants, fully automated, due to risks, and vapors churning out hydrogen which is piped into transport systems, and fuel cell refill stations. Speaking of jars of urine and artistic figures contained, relieving human kind from a fossil fuel apocalypse...

Urine = Philosopher's Stone? - The Story Of Science - Episode 2 - BBC Two
Serendipity is the accidental discovery of something useful whilst looking for something else. And this is exactly what happened to a 17th century German while experimenting with urine.

Hennig Brandt was an unsuccessful businessman and former soldier from Hamburg who was determined to discover the Philosopher's Stone.

People are still experimenting with urine in very interesting ways. Others aren't succeeding quite so well at it.
experiment away with this recipe., don't raise hopes too high regarding a nobel pees prize on first try though.
posted by infinite intimation at 11:55 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


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