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

April 19, 2011 |  1:47 pm

Pisschrist

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

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