Last week, Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ, on display at the Lambert Gallery in Avignon, was vandalized by Christian fundamentalists. The three vandals physically threatened museum guards, then took a hammer to the plexiglass in front of the artwork and slashed the photograph with a screwdriver or an ice-pick. (See news photo and story here.)
The photograph, created in 1987, shows a plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine. Serrano, a Catholic, said that he meant it as a criticism of the “billion-dollar Christ-for-profit industry” and a “condemnation of those who abuse the teachings of Christ for their own ignoble ends.” Many Christians, though, take serious offense at the piece, as they consider it blasphemous.
My initial reaction when I saw this photograph for the first time, in high school, was offense. Not outrage, just offense. And really, that offense stemmed more from my disgust with how the piece was created, not necessarily because I had moral objections.
Sister Wendy Beckett, an art expert of BBC fame, said in a 1997 interview with Bill Moyers that she’s not going to automatically dismiss the work as blasphemous because she believes that it can have a devotional impact, an upbuilding effect, on viewers if they let it. She said, for example, that seeing it makes her want to reverence the death of Christ even more, because it reminds her, and makes her feel ashamed, that people (herself included) so often scorn his sacrifice through their actions. “This is what we are doing to Christ,” she says. “We’re not treating him with reverence, his great sacrifice is not used, we live very vulgar lives, we put Christ in a bottle of urine, in practice.” While the work is not great art, she says, it is at least admonitory.
Art critic Lucy Lippard has gone so far as to praise the photograph’s formal qualities. She says that the “glorious” rosy glow of the light penetrating the glass and the tiny constellations of bubbles give the impression that the crucifix is encased in amber, frozen in time. “Quite mysterious and beautiful,” she says.
I don’t know about that. I can’t get past the fact that the crucifix is floating in human waste—the title won’t let me get past it.
Serrano no doubt wanted to shock, wanted to evoke a visceral reaction, wanted to offend—but for what purpose? According to Serrano, he wanted to remind viewers that we should be offended that this is what we make of Christ. This is what I make of him. Every time I neglect my prayer life. Every time I think a bitter thought, or a selfish one. Every time I fail to be the salt and light he called me to be. I just push him down deeper in that jar.
In 2000, Andrew Hudgins wrote a poem in response to the work, offering up a slightly different interpretation. The poem is littered with references to bodily functions and fluids, which are meant to emphasize the physicality that Christ took on, his human nature, and also the very baseness of that nature. “We are born between the urine and the feces, / Augustine says, and so was Christ.” He “skidd[ed] into this world as we do / on a tide of blood and urine.”
Hudgins’s poem is explicit and gross, but it sums up the Incarnation beautifully in just two lines: “the whole irreducible point of the faith, / God thrown in human waste, submerged and shining.” God willingly covered himself in the filth of the world—he made himself flesh, and dwelt among us—so that he could pull us out of it and make us shine. Just as Serrano, as artist, aestheticizes the urine, transforming it into a substance of beauty, so Jesus transforms humanity; he takes our base and vile hearts and, through the power of his death and resurrection, consecrates and ennobles them.
Hudgins’s poem recasts the seemingly helpless, victimized Christ of Serrano’s photograph into an intentional Christ, one who purposefully took a humiliating plunge so that he could redeem mankind.
“We have grown used to beauty without horror. / We have grown used to useless beauty.” Too often, Christians think only on the beauty of the cross and not of its horror. Most artists picture the crucified Christ as bowing his head gracefully rather than struggling for breath or yelling at the Father. We must remember that the beauty of our redemption through Christ was born of the ugliness of his execution, and it was the ugliness of our sin that led him there. God submerged himself in human waste, but ironically, the lower he made himself, the more glorious he proved himself, the more brightly he shone. So now with this different spin, take another look at Piss Christ. Perhaps you will see, in the urine-soaked crucifix, something to contemplate. Or praise. Or confess.
What was your first reaction to Piss Christ? Did that reaction change when you learned of the artist’s intention? After reading Hudgins’s poem? Can God really be glorified by art such as this? Was Serrano’s method inappropriate for the given subject?
And, because this blog is first and foremost about JESUS, does this artwork enlighten your perspective of him at all? Encourage you to cling to him more tightly? Or maybe it just makes you angry, and that’s all?
I’m not trying to force an interpretation on you or even force you to appreciate the work. But I do encourage you, when you look at art, to go beyond the initial “aw, so pretty” or “ew, gross” reflex to see if there’s anything else there. Sometimes there’s not, sometimes there is.