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Piss Christ and the Nuance of Controversy

"Piss Christ," Andres Serrano

So, I’m sure by now all of you who keep up at all with the news or the art world have heard about the damage done to Andres Serrano’s infamous “Piss Christ” this last week. I wasn’t too bothered about reporting on it, because, well, it’s not like it was the first attack on it, and it’s not unexpected. But, still, it’s worth pondering the entirety of this situation.

“Piss Christ” is one of those works that’s become important independent of any artistic merit. To say it’s not a good photograph, I feel, is to misread the thing. The actual physical product was never the art, it was the statement. And, while it’s easy to read the art as a bombastic and juvenile attempt to piss off Christians–which it readily does–I don’t feel we can offhandedly dismiss the artist’s own statements that the piece was meant more as a commentary of what we’ve done to Christ and that it comes more through his own relation with the subject and how society treats it than any attempt to offend.

Now, I’ve seen some of his other work, so, you have to wonder how honest he’s being there, but still, we can’t offhand dismiss it. Any open statement an artist makes about a work is a part of the work, after all.

Anyway, I don’t know this photo because of its art, but because of the fuss it raised about being funded with taxpayer money. That’s where this becomes legend, is it became the poster work for what counts as art, what doesn’t, and when it’s OK to fund and when not.It brings up questions of artistic merit, censorship, the whole works. And, they’re not questions with simple answers, even some twenty years later. That’s why anyone cares about the piece, and why artists especially continue to pay homage to it.

And now it’s destroyed, and there’s a good article about what actually happened here and Joerg Colberg over at Conscientious has some interesting thoughts on it here, even if I disagree with his simplistic dismissal of the piece as purely bombastic. Where I do agree with Joerg is how the piece means more destroyed. It’s moved beyond the initial offensiveness. it’s moved now even beyond the initial questions of the validity of art and tax funding. It’s not an over-arcing comment on how we handle controversy, spanning just more than two decades and full of enough sub-controversy to add depth. Much like Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even,” it’s just possible that the permanent damage of this piece will be what it takes to finish it. It’s complete now. I like that.

But, I think it’s important to give real consideration to controversial art’s place in the world. It’s important, I feel, that art be encouraged to challenge us and make us uncomfortable. Being made uncomfortable by such a neutral object is generally an invitation for personal exploration and dialog. If it bothers that much, then why? Even the most juvenile of pieces can be of merit so long as it creates that opportunity. But, there’s no hard and fast line to say art is doing that, and not just pissing people off to get a rise, or attention. So, it’s hard to say what stance to take on controversial works and their merit as art, so I prefer a neutral one myself. If the art is truly empty, the world will get around to forgetting it. That Piss Christ endures is because however much people want it to be just inflammatory, it’s become something more. And that’s good. It might even have been the point.