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Piss Christ - Paradoxes of Aesthetics
That Andrew Serrano's painting Piss Christ has caused an overwhelming amount of controversy and response is undeniable. A search on The Age's Archives turned up no less than 72 articles related directly to Serrano's Piss Christ, mainly from the time Serrano and the work visited Melbourne during 1997 and 1998. The exhibition of the work provoked some violent responses here. One Timur Grin caused almost $100,000 worth of damage to works at the National Gallery of Victoria, including damage to Piss Christ, although he then claimed not to be offended by the photograph and not even to be a Christian (The Age, 28 March 1998 and 17 April 1998). When the photo arrived in October 1997, the Catholic Church took it to court in order to seek a ban, unsuccessfully, on the public display of the photograph.
Responses have been extremely varied. Some have criticised Serrano's work as dull and read the response to it as the public's "fear of art":
The difficulty is whether the current debate is due to some new phenomena or if it is a manifestation of the old 'fear of art'. I suspect in Serrano's case it is both. Serrano's work is fundamentally conservative and indeed as boring in its spectacle as any 19th Century salon piece. Apart from the obsessive recording of deviant behaviour, or the clinical approach to morbid subject matter, there is beyond that nothing of which to speak. The works are lifeless, tedious, over-inflated and depressing in their complete negation of themselves as gifts to the world. It is certain the reviews and responses would have been savage if it weren't for the expected and current negativity from certain quarters of the public (Fish Communication Network, 1998).
Other commentators have defended the work as a profound piece of religious art:
I wish they'd all lighten up and see this piece for what it is: not blasphemy, but a profoundly religious reflection on the place of Jesus Christ in contemporary society. Yes, it IS disturbing. So? One of the most important functions of art is to disturb, and that, dear flock, includes religious art (Schildgen, 1998).
Others have, in perhaps "typical" Australian fashion, attempted to defuse the hype and 'seriousness' surrounding the whole situation by taking the "piss" out of Piss Christ:
In the tradition of Piss Christ comes Piss Pot, featuring a pot of beer immersed in urine. "Piss Pot is deeply offensive to all Australians," said Liam Cody, prominent beer drinker. "It takes one of our most sacred icons, a pot of beer, and destroys it. We've all spent a night on the turps and woken up feeling like we must have drunk urine the night before. But this is different. It confirms our worst nightmares," he said…The exhibition will run until vandals and religious fruitcakes destroy everything with hammers (Cody and Tomkins, 1998).
This type of parody can be significant in providing clues as to the logic that condemns Piss Art to mere blasphemy however. The joke works, because, in fact a pot of beer is so very banal while the figure of Christ is normally taken as one of the most sacred in Western history. Yet certain paradoxes surround the work Piss Christ. To view the photo initially, out of the context of controversy which surrounds it, unaware even of the title, the work comes across as anything but blasphemous. It conveys, rather, a deep sense of reverence and even mystical appreciation of the crucifixion, denoted by a glowing aura surrounding the image of Jesus on the cross. It appears to relate something of the trans-historicity, the timelessness of the meaning of the crucifixion of Christ - a concept close to the heart of many conservative, orthodox Christians. It is only when one reads the title and the means by which the photo was produced that the blasphemous "shock" hits the viewer. What appears to be an image of sincere reverance, turns out to be an image of a crucifix immersed in urine - not what one would read as a received notion of reverence.
The second paradox is that the same work which caused such massive outrage for being displayed at the National Gallery of Victoria, was constantly reproduced at the time in both The Age and The Herald-Sun, as well as on the TV networks; yet no one attempted to ban these papers or the networks from reproducing the artwork, nor did anyone express outrage at the fact that the newspapers and the networks would dare reproduce Piss Christ. The net result was that (as if often the case) the controversy created by outraged Christians caused many more people to view the work, even if not in its "original" medium or context, than would have if no one had spoken out about the work. This peculiar effect however belies a certain logic of textuality that pervades Christian metaphysics and may also be seen as the root cause for the outrage the work caused.
The issue at stake is not so much the particular image as an historically concrete object - although this has been the target of vandals. What is more provoking to people who take serious religious offence at the work, is a loss of control over the category 'sacred' and its dissimulation and how it is interpreted. The fact is that the work was, and is, not just hanging in a gallery - it is extremely widely reproduced and reproducible. A search on the net brought up multiple sources for digital (ie, downloadable) reproductions of the work itself - and the notion of just how reproducible not only Piss Christ, but works of art in general, are, in our particular historical era marked by mass reproduction only intensified by the advent and success of electronic technology, struck me as I was downloading materials for this essay including the image reproduced above once more for good measure. It struck me as I was playing around with my computer and set the image as a tiled background on my desktop - which instantly gave me not one, but ten reproductions of the work in question.
The work as photographic reproduction defies location of an original - a particular effect of our postmodern culture determined by the logic of late capitalism (as described by Jameson, 1991). Assumedly, attempting to destroy the work by vandalism could only be a symbolic gesture, as another print could always be ordered.
In this critics of Serrano such as Fisher and Ramsay (1997) in their Quadrant article 'The Bishop, the Artist, the Curator and the Crucifix' (no doubt a play on the title of Peter Greenaway's film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover that caused a considerable amount of controversy also) are forced to locate the blasphemous impulse or effect not in the work itself as resemblance, but in its representation of an historical event:
Profaning a sacred object by urinating upon it (or immersing it in urine) would be a sacrilege in almost any culture or religion; photographing and publicly displaying the record of such an act counts as blasphemy in almost any culture, let alone giving it the particular name it was here given; and if the creation and public display of such a work is deliberately provocative, as it almost certainly was, this in turn demonstrates disrespect for a particular religion, or at least insensitivity towards its adherents (49).
Thus, due to the reproductive possibilities of the work of art, and that fact that at the height of the controversy the art work was reproduced in many media, to blame the work itself as blasphemous object can no longer be seen as the source of the offense. Fisher and Ramsay criticise the historical acts of immersing the crucifix, photographing it in this way, and placing the photograph on public display as an artwork.
Nonetheless, their insistence on the fact that the act of blasphemy commited here was real and objective, and not just a matter of personal opinion, forces them into a contradictory point of view. On the one hand they argue that the effect of blasphemy is an immediate one, intuitively felt, almost as if blasphemy violated some innate, inbuilt moral/aesthetic faculty of human beings:
In crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power fully to articulate. Popular repugnance at sacrilege and blasphemy would seem to be an example of this. As with incest, bestiality, cannibalism, and the desecration of corpses, we are repelled ..because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear...(51)
On the other hand, they cannot deny that the symbolic effect of blasphemy is in fact entirely mediated by the cultural and contextual reception of the offending image, which end up constructing the image in the minds of its readers as either 'work of art', 'act of blasphemy', 'tedious self-indulgence' or any number of interpretations, all finally equally valid in an era of liberal capitalism:
This notion of "the image itself" is a major misunderstanding of the nature of art: the subject depicted, the means of its creation, the title it is given, the history of its reception, and the circumstances in which it is displayed, are all dimensions of the work and its effect on the viewer (51).
It is interesting that the historical truth of the means of the creation of Piss Christ has not been questioned by anyone (to my knowledge). As I wrote above, the shock comes when learning that the 'radiant glow' in the photograph is due to the fact that the crucifix has been immersed in urine. But this fact is rarely challenged. For all anyone knows, the crucifix could have been immersed in lemon cordial and, like approaching the image out of its received context, its blasphemous impact would cease to be effective.
This, however, is not an appeal on my behalf to discover the real historical truth about the creation of Piss Christ, but is rather to argue that the construction of the work is a result of an 'heterotopic' approach, a Foucaultian concept particular to modernist art, but already developing from the fifteenth century onwards, aptly summarized by Horrocks and Jevtic (1997):
…the traditional bonds between language and image are disturbed, made different and in tension…In paintings or illustrations, text (words) and images (resemblances) often appear together, but one is always subordinate to the other. For example, an illustration can serve a text, or a letter in a trompe l'oeil painting might serve the image. There is a hierarchy of resembling the world through images and using non-resemblance (representation) through words (they don't look like the world)…Resemblance was always an affirmation of an object. When an image is painted, a statement is assumed. "What you see is that"… [In the heterotopic approach] only similitudes remain - a series of visual and linguistic signs without external reference (79-81).
With Piss Christ, in terms of its public reception, it is the representative element - the title and the description of its creation which subordinate the image. The effect of blasphemy cannot be ascertained by an appeal to the resembling aspects of the image alone - it is crucial that the title and the history of the image be known for blasphemy to occur. The whole effect of Piss Christ is because, powerfully, what you see is not what you expect to get - the external reference of sacredness is entirely undermined by the representative elements of the image, where the effect of blasphemy is felt.
However this dislodging of the hierarchy which serves to concretely link resemblance and representation also then refuses any particular interpretation as more valid than any other. A bar comes between image and word. This is the reason why the Piss Christ causes such offence. It is essential for orthodox Christianity, that only one interpretation of the meaning of the figure of Christ surround any depiction of Jesus Christ. This is because for orthodox Christianity there is only one historically valid interpretation of history - the interpretation that history becomes transcendentally meaningful by the direct intervention of the person of Jesus Christ within history, as revealed in the Bible. It is the loss of control over this singular interpretation. However, due to the historical effects of late capitalism and modernism such as mass reproduction, the loss of uniqueness, and the proliferation of diversity, a single interpretation cannot be guaranteed leading to the need to constantly 'shore up' and insist on the Truth - even where it leads obviously into contradiction, which is one of the reasons for the success of religious fundamentalism.
This trend or motif is eloquently expressed by Derrida (1978) when he writes,
To write is not only to know that the Book [eg the Bible] does not exist and that forever there are books, against which the meaning of the world not conceived by an absolute subject is shattered, before it has even become a unique meaning; nor is it only to know that the non-written and the non-read cannot be relegated to the status of having no basis by the obliging negativity of some dialectic, making us deplore the absence of the Book from under the burden of "too many texts!" It is not only to have lost the theological certainty of seeing every page bind itself into the unique text of the truth, the "book of reason" as the journal in which accounts (rationes) and experiences consigned for Memory was formely called, the geneological anthology, the Book of Reason this time, the infinite manuscript read by a God who, in a more or less deferred way, is said to have give us use of his pen. This lost certainty, this absence of divine writing…does not solely and vaguely define something like "modernity". As the absence and haunting of the divine sign, it regulates all modern criticism and aethetics (10).
This highlights the fact that wherever resemblance and representation have become disjointed, representation comes to stand in crisis, and not only for the theologian. What is lost as certainty and what haunts as absence - the possibility of an absolute truth-value and aesthetic judgement by its invocation, expresses itself as an irresolvable antinomy in modern critiscism. As Feher and Heller (1986) write:
On the one hand, depository [of art as 'species-value'] is, per definitionem, a value preserver, on the other hand, a substitute for life… The work of art, however, conserves (or at least it may conserve) the atomization of life just as well. The work itself is nothing but a 'beautiful appearance' which, with the passing of the effects, may just as well reintroduce us into life, feeding into the recipient the false feeling of having fulfilled his duty in the intermezzi of reception as, according to the general postulate, it may guide him out of it, in the direction of a real transformation (4).
The paradox is that the appearance of totality can only be challenged and rebelled against in the shadow of the claim of totality - without the possibility of this claim, or the historical haunting of this totality itself, the problem between representation and resemblance would collapse. Specifically, for Piss Christ, the blasphemous effects of the artwork would disappear if it did not in some way reproduce the claim to the sacredness of the Christ-figure. For Feher and Heller this means that, "Aesthetics is, consequently, irreformable, in the sense that its antinomic character is untranscendable" (22). Nonetheless the very artwork itself demands or desires that there should be a real correspondence with its value as art and aesthetic judgement about it. No artist, no matter how much they claim to be, can really be free of the critic's impact.
LIST OF REFERENCESCody, L. and Tomkins C. (1998) 'Piss Take Piss Christ'. On-line: http://www.gorskys.com.au/articles/piss-take.shtmlDerrida, J. (1978) Writing and Difference London: Routledge.
Feher F. and Heller, A. (1986) 'The Necessity and the Irreformability of Aesthetics' in A. Heller and F. Feher (eds.) Reconstructing Aesthetics: Writings of the Budapest School Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Fish Communication Network (1998) 'A take on Piss Christ'. On-line: http://www.shootthemessenger.com.au/u_jan_98/life/l_pisschrist.htmFisher, A. and Ramsey, H. (1997) 'The bishop, the artist , the curator and the crucifix', Quadrant v41 n12 pp. 48-54.
Horrocks C. and Jevtic Z. (1997) Foucault for Beginners Cambridge: Icon Books.
Jameson, F. (1991) Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism Durham: Duke University Press.
Schildgen, B. (date not given) 'The Church, the Pope, Piss Christ, and the Culture of Death'. On-line: http://www.dnai.com/~mindfld/crucifix.shtml