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A survey of heated rhetoric on Andres Serrano's 'Piss Christ'

April 19, 2011 |  1:47 pm


Some cultural controversies age better than others. It can be difficult today to see what got people so upset about Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" or Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." On the other hand, Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" still has the power to rile. And so does Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" -- his 1987 photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine -- which was attacked last weekend in France by Catholic activists armed with blunt tools.

Reports state that three people entered the Collection Lambert art museum in Avignon, France, over the weekend. One of them wielded a hammer at the photograph, breaking the protective glass. The photograph was apparently not damaged, though other works in the show were. "Piss Christ" was being displayed as part of a religion-themed group exhibition titled "I Believe in Miracles."

Serrano told Libération: "I find it extremely sad, and unexpected. Frankly, I wasn't expecting something like this at all, especially in France, where I get a lot of support." Serrano also reiterated that he is a Christian artist and has no tolerance for blasphemy.

The Catholic bishop of Avignon, Monseigneur Jean-Pierre Cattenoz, has described Serrano's photograph as "odious" and has called for its removal.

Over the years, "Piss Christ" has generated a lot of heated rhetoric. The work was a central focus of the Culture Wars in the 1990s, in which politicians and arts supporters debated whether the National Endowment for the Arts should support works by Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe and other transgressive artists.

Here's a sampling of some of the more memorable quotes from "Piss Christ" controversies of the past.

Sen. Alphonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.): "Shocking, abhorrent and completely undeserving of any recognition whatsoever. Millions of taxpayers are rightfully incensed that their hard-earned dollars were used to honor and support Serrano's work." (1989)

Lucy Lippard (art critic): "[It's a] darkly beautiful photographic image ... the small wood and plastic crucifix becomes virtually monumental as it floats, photographically enlarged, in a deep rosy glow that is both ominous and glorious." (1990)

Arizona Republic (editorial): "What if it were the image of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in that jar of urine? Would the NEA for an instant consider underwriting the production of a blatantly racist or anti-Semitic work under the rubric of artistic freedom?"  (1989)

Sister Wendy Beckett (Carmelite nun, author and TV art commentator): "I think to call it blasphemous is really rather begging the question. It could be, it could not be. It's what you make of it.... It's very hard to make judgements of works of our time. We have to wait." (2000)

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.): "Serrano is not an artist. He is a jerk." (circa 1989)

Christopher Knight (art critic, L.A. Times): "There's a narrow sameness to Serrano's art, but the resultant potential for highly concentrated, laser-like insight is undermined by the general shallowness of the enterprise. As simple illustration, 'Piss Christ' finally tells us nothing we hadn't already read in the papers, nor does it create a useful replacement for it." (1994)


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-- David Ng

Photos: Serrano's "Piss Christ," as seen partially destroyed by Catholic activists in Avignon, France. Credit: Jean-Paul Pelissier / Reuters

Comments () | Archives (12)

OMG!!! I agree with CK, a sign of the Apocalypse?!

Could anyone imagine this guy submerging the Koran in a glass of his own urine and putting that photo on public display and all the so-called 'art' critics gathering round to ooh and aah in admiration?

Three cheers for the truly artistic 'vandals' who created of little bit of unscripted performance art by taking a hammer to this sickening shlock.

So the guy who wanted to burn korans was crazy, but this guy urinates on a cross and he should be praised and supported??? Apparently the word of the day is hypocrisy...

Here we go with those ignorant of Islam, the way to peace. Extremists of all sorts, Christiam, Muslim, atheist and artsy are all ignorant and self absorbed in their self-righteous indignation. What we call fools, but dangerous ones, especially to themselves.

This attack could not be of anyone who is truly a follower of Isa the Prophet, as Yeshua is referred to in the Quran. The most perfect of men, born of the virgin Maryam, to sit with God, there is only One, on Judgment Day.

Not by those who follow Yeshua as their savior and son of God nor of Muhammed's words, As they attacked the icon, a blasphemy in islam as no one should be worshipped, only Allah, the hundredth and final name of God, as well as that of El, YHWH and Jehovah, the same god is worshipped in all three religions. Smashing the image of Yeshua's head is not the way of any man of god. Idiots are idiots, and losers losers, no matter who they worship for truly they only worship themselves.

As well as those who profanely denigrate things they obviously do not understand, whether in photos urinals or with hammers. Respect is a fundamental part of manhood, these were no men.

A Salaamu alaikum
Gods peace unto you.

Before seeing the photograph, my first impression on hearing the title “Piss Christ” was one of shock and disgust. Urine is icky human waste, and pairing it with the name of my God seemed wrong. I didn’t understand this work and so I asked questions and talked about it with someone who has studied it. After looking at the photograph, I came to my own conclusion.

Too many supposedly faithful Christians forget that one of the basic tenets of their faith is that Christ was fully human as well as divine, both man and God. Biblical accounts of the passion, describe how Jesus’ fellow humans basically “pissed” on him through torture and mocking (even many of his friends abandoned him, denied knowing him, betrayed him), so why the big deal about an artist showing him at his weakest human moment, his death, fully immersed and surrounded by the lowest of our human output?

The most interesting thing about Serrano’s work is that the photograph makes Christ appear to be glorious, glowing, and divine, rising above it all, regardless of what has been done to him. Now a group of my fellow Catholics go and bash in the image on Holy Week? How very human of them. As the saying goes, to err is human, to forgive divine. We should forgive them for they know not what they do.

This isn’t the apocalypse, DF, but it’s enough to make some people stop believing in miracles. I’m starting to lose some hope, but will never lose my faith and love.

All art should be the same.
All art should be non-controversial.
All art should offend no one.
All art should be commercial.
All art should be privately financed.
All art should be the same.

REJOICE. Resurrection 2.011 is here. Andres Serrano >>>jeebus. Now if only he could turn urine into red bull and vodka folks might start following him around. Ironically, the protesters only succeeded in smashing the glass not damaging the work IT'S A MIRACLE! . Oh that and to re-energize the public/internet and to get the LA Times for example to write a new piece on a 19 year old painting that most had forgotten.

Proof that this was a MIRACLE? "Piss Christ" was being displayed as part of a religion-themed group exhibition titled "I Believe in Miracles." Religious wackos come to try and damage Piss Christ. They fail, but in the process do damage other religious themed art from said exhibit. and actually 'resurrect' the public discourse/art world and media based entirely on the attention they brought on Piss Christ Does Serrano owe them royalties now?

Need I say more.

I love it when idiots get owned by themselves.

The Apocalypse is that CK and i agree, though i dont think he had quite fallen into the contempt trap as much back then, Much has degraded from that era of mediocrity in the last 20 yeas. So slowly those caught up in the quicksand took no notice, til now their noses barely stick up from the muck.

Read his review above, that is actually how I felt about it, much ado about nothing. It is disrespectful, putting the icon of a dying Yeshua in urine, that makes the creator in the camp of those who "pissed" on him with whips, thorns and nails. You can use all sorts of silly rhetoric to explain, but the title says all, as the photo is rather lame in its communicative ability. It is the shock that gets to you, by itself it is pretty mundane, and we cant have that in the artsy fartsy world now can we?

The "culture" war of the 80s,90s helped Serrano, but we got more absurd and silly things to entertain the effette and pseudo intellectual, the nouveau riche and self absorbed now. Who can beat Koons Michael Jackson and Bobo? the teenagers were taking pics in front of it like crazy on Saturday, thought the puppy was pretty cool, and were confused about why any of the rest was in a museum and called art. But did love pushing the buttons on the tiny elevators til they were told to stop. Hey,it had buttons,whatcha expect? The preteens I taught on Sunday felt the same, had to give them a healthy helping of early modern to get them back to taking art seriously as an emotional, physical and soulful intensifying of lifes power.

Out of the mouth of babes. They loved the Cezanne's,Gauguin's, Rousseau's, Matisse, Klee's,Tamayo's and Frazells,my ex wifes,current wife's and mine.
Out of the mouth of babes.

The controversy then and now just made Serrano popular and part of the "conversation" the baby talk of the artscene. Who knows? Maybe he hired the hammer men to regain some tabloid notoriety, thatsa ll he ever had, enough to send his prices up in the decadent, commodity trading world of contempt art investment.
Maybe Iblis(the devil) made him do it.

art collegia delenda est
Save the colorful and spiritual Watts Towers, tear down the decadent and pissy Ivories.

And life is never a given, we must everyday justify our existence, and show love through commitment, responsibility, and sacrifice. As did so many before us. That man does is what gives hope. Death is not to be feared, not living humbly as part of joined humanity is.
Something the artworld forgot long ago in its Self righteous arrogance.

I totally agree with Cate. The idea of the work, as a good catholic boy, offended me deeply. But when I saw it at the Saatchi Gallery in 80's London I was blown away: moved and humbled by this so very human representation of my beloved Jesus.

Peter's pensive. What a total load of crap. Don't piss me off.

Donald, don't lecture me about facing death, or tell me what to think. I understand love through commitment, responsibility, sacrifice, and humility.

Sure, of course Serrano was playing the shock value of the title. Can you blame him for wanting to make money and make a "conceptual" statement with his art at the same time? Laughing all the way to the Banksy. It's a tempest in a teapot, it's been said before, but not in exactly the same way.

I wouldn't hang Serrano's art on my walls, but I wouldn't publically hang him either. People choose to see what they want to see in art. I see beyond the surface layer of dung and look for the beauty underneath. Sometimes I can't find any, but sometimes I do. That gives me hope.

Brian: Always look on the bright side of life. You'll gain more disciples. But that would be a miracle.

I Take Pictures

Meetings With Remarkable People

A Collection by Rina Sherman


I am sad and shocked at the destruction of Andres Serrano's work, the attempt to stop him from expressing himself fully as an artist.

Piss Christ is a beautiful haunting image.

This incident is an indication of where we are at in these times, and an illustration of how irresponsible hate speech by those in elected positions have contributed to a climate of hate, fear and even worse the taking basic rights into the hands of no longer so marginal few fanatics.

Rina Sherman
Writer, filmmaker, ethnographer

Then you should never lose hope Cate, for if you work and seek, be patient and keep moving, rewards to at least keep that direction going sometimes appear. But we can never count on them. Hell, just got a real nice sale from referral by a past buyer, one cannot sink into the cesspool to search for gold nuggets, you will only find the other kind. Though I have always been great at finding diamonds in the rough as my adopted, Annapolis grad, now med school son says. Afterall, Picasso never exhibited in any Salon, which have been rebuilt. The best artists seldom get pub in their lifetime, the artscene is always behind as their clients are money makers who seek status and investment, not truth seekers.

Now I can hopefully spend more times giving art classes to kids. Simply put art before them, answer questions to help them work, and search for each childs given talents as art creation is for very few. But the philosophy, theology and science that art explores as one is for everybody.

But, Supporting the Truth that all Women are Beautiful, is my primary concern now. Getting my wifes magazine out there as it will affect far more people positively than the decadent "artscene". Still in advertiser seeking mode now. http://soluvmagazine.com/

I am not of any one religion, but respect them all and see much truth as well as ceremonial bricabrac. I go along more with Muhammed, who saw Isa as the greatest prophet and most pure of men, but man, not God. There is only One. And no devil, Iblis is but a weak and annoying Iago, whispering in the ears of spiritually weak Man to lead away from Allah, the hundreth and last name of God. Yeshua is the way, but by emulation, not idolization. An afterlife is irrelevant as we are to do what is best for humanity, living in our world, in humble respect of God. If one does not live purely, no way. But that is up to Allah's grace, not us.

And Rina, the "artwork" was not destroyed. It was protected by a plexiglass shield, as it was obvious someone would want to use the urinal on the plastic Yeshua,who suffered the worst death imaginable sticking to his way, one far worse than his fellow truth seeker Socrates.
Always funny how supposed "Christians" cannot even call the man by his real name. Muslims know it is but the Arabic equivalent they use for him, not a Hellenic corruption.

art collegia delenda est
Child care centers, not seekers of Truth. Few great artists or musicians have ever graduated from one, and the MFA the kiss of death. Total brainwashing. Centers of commerce and snakeoil salesmen, the true talent of America.


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