Serrano’s Piss Christ Reconsidered

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Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, vandalized at a Paris exhibition.


Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a 60 x 40 inch full color glossy photo of a plastic crucifix submerged in a container of the artist’s urine, was first displayed in 1988 at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The photo took first prize in the center’s annual competition, but immediately caused outrage among the Christian community. Its subsequent display at museums around the world has lead to protests, accusations of desecration, a reduction in funding for the

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Ed Knippers

National Endowment for the Arts (the government agency that funded the SECCA competition won by Serrano), and acts of vandalism carried out against the controversial photograph.[1] While violence should never be condoned, it’s understandable why so many Christians are upset. What Christian could possibly view this so-called work of art as anything other than an offense against the faith? One would think, we would be hard pressed to find a single follower of Christ for whom this photo is deemed beautiful. And yet, this is exactly what we find in Christian artist Edward Knippers, who believes that after more than twenty-five years it’s time for the church to no longer view Piss Christ as sacrilegious, but rather as a statement of divine truth.[2]

How exactly does Knippers come to this conclusion? He begins by asking the reader to consider what she would think upon viewing the photograph without any prior knowledge of the fluid in which it is contained, or of the artist’s intention in creating the work. Under such conditions, Knippers cannot help but feel that she would consider it beautiful.

The image in and of itself is quite beautiful as we see a crucifix almost nostalgically glowing in a golden mist of timelessness.[3]

It’s only upon becoming aware of the title and the realization of what the fluid is, that one takes offense. Knippers describes it as a jolt to the emotions. In his own reflection on Piss Christ, philosopher Jorge J. E. Gracia states that this is because of how society views the act of deliberately urinating on another person or object. It’s considered an act of power, defiance and humiliation. It’s as if the one pissing is declaring the person or object as worthless and disposable, like piss.[4] It seems only natural for the viewer to conclude that this is exactly what Serrano is doing. But what if the viewer were to discover that this was not the artist’s intention? If this disturbing immersion was for a noble purpose, would it no longer be considered an offense? Knippers is not the first to make such a speculation. It’s entirely possible that Serrano is trying to make some statement about the trivialization and commercialization of the Christian faith. In this sense, he would be attacking the reduction “of one of Christianity’s most precious and seminal moments to a plastic trinket.”[5] That would mean that Serrano is not attacking the Christian faith, but rather the Christian community for the way they themselves have desecrated the image of Christ. Along these same lines, Serrano may be expressing his anger about corruption in the Catholic Church (the institution most commonly associated with crucifixes), acting in a manner not unlike Christ when he overturned tables in the temple and chased out the money changers. Wouldn’t we then have to view Piss Christ as a work of piety and righteous indignation?[6]

Even though Knippers considers these possibilities, in the end he dismisses the artist’s intention as unimportant. It wouldn’t even matter to Knippers if the artist was Catholic, or considered himself a Christian. What matters for Knippers is what Piss Christ comes to mean for him (and for Christians in general), independent of the artist’s actual purpose.

No matter what Serrano’s intent or what this piece has become through the crucible of the culture wars, at this distance in time, from all of the shouting and wounded feelings of hard fought battles, the Piss Christ has become for me an elegant statement of the Christian truth that should be at the heart of our contemplation . . . the fact that our dear Lord and Savior has come, and is here, to powerfully redeem the likes of us with his love.[7]

Knippers has come to view Serrano’s work as symbolic of the incarnation: Jesus left the splendor of Heaven to be immersed in the cesspool of earth, in order to sacrifice his life on the cross for a fallen and filthy world. In this way, Piss Christ is to be seen as a powerfully instructive tool aimed at shocking us out of our comfortable lives to “wrestle with the hard reality of what Christ has done for us.”[8]

Is Knippers correct in his interpretation? Given that Serrano has been largely silent regarding his intention, one might conclude that the meaning of this work is ambiguous. If this is the case, then Knippers is certainly justified in his postulation. It’s not

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Serrano

uncommon for artists to construct works that lend themselves to multiple interpretations. In a recent interview focusing on Piss Christ, the artist acknowledged that this was his goal.

I distrust anyone with a message. The best artistic intentions are usually cloaked in mysteries and contradictions. It wouldn’t be interesting for me if the art were not “loaded” in some way. I always say my work is open for interpretation and that’s why I prefer not to read many of the “interpretations” out there. Suffice it to say, the work is like a mirror, and it reveals itself in different ways, to different people.[9]

But Knippers is not premising his interpretation on the basis of ambiguity. He is declaring that Serrano’s intention makes no difference in how he interprets this photograph. In taking this approach, he is isolating it from the context in which it is necessarily embedded.

First, there is the context of the artist’s intention. While Serrano may have intended for it to be a debatable thing, the fact that it has outraged so many would seem to suggest that he has failed in his goal and “loaded” the work too heavily in the direction of desecration. Is this a surprise? There is nothing ambiguous in the title he has chosen. As Gracia points out, the title is not Piss on Christianity, or Pissed Christ.[10] Serrano entitled the work Piss Christ. There is simply no getting around the fact that Serrano has pissed on an image of Christ, and that alone is not easily separated from negative intention (especially given that he knew it would outrage people). Second, there is the context of the cultural reaction to the photo. To casually dismiss the perceptions of seemingly countless Christians worldwide (and quite a large number of non-Christians as well) and ask that they instead view it as an elegant statement of faith is ludicrous. Knippers is advocating a reckless hermeneutic. And because of this, I believe his interpretation is wrong.

This photo is disgusting and insulting. Given our society’s perception of what it means to urinate on someone or something, there is simply no other way to interpret it. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not instructive. Piss Christ should serve as a visual reminder of precisely why Christ came into this world. Even knowing that men would reject him, even knowing that they would mock his work on the cross, he still came. Though the world would piss upon it, the image of Christ’s unconditional love remains visible.

“. . . While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”[11]


[1] In 2011 a print of the photograph was destroyed by a mob of protesters in Avignon, France.

[2] Edward Knippers, “Serrano’s Piss Christ Reconsidered,” Critique, February, 2016, 8.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jorge J. E. Gracia, “On Desecration: Andres Serrano, Piss Christ,” Michigan Quarterly Review 52, no. 4 (Fall 2013): accessed October 15, 2016, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?cc=mqr;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;idno=act2080.0052.415;g=mqrg;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1.

[5] Knippers, Piss Christ Reconsidered, 8.

[6] Gracia, On Desecration.

[7] Knippers, Piss Christ Reconsidered, 8.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Udoka Okafer, “Exclusive Interview with Andres Serrano, Photographer of Piss Christ,The Huffington Post, June 4, 2014, accessed on December 1, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/udoka-okafor/exclusive-interview-with-_18_b_5442141.html.

[10] Gracia, On Desecration.

[11] Romans 5:8 (NASB).

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One comment

  1. sprucevale

    Good article! I think that by saying that he distrusts anyone with a message, Serrano is caught in a self-contradictory statement because by its very nature, that is a message. Whatever Serrano’s intent, it cannot be separated from the impact. In the case of this particular work, it strikes me that the medium and the title are meant to make us recoil and turn away, which certainly means turning from Christ himself.

    Thanks for your thoughtful essay.

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