May 28, 2012 | by  | in Arts Visual arts |
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Pissing In The Name Of

In 1987, New York artist Andres Serrano plunged himself into a decades-long censorship controversy when he photographed a crucifix submerged in his own urine. For a work so widely interpreted as blasphemous on a conceptual level, the image itself is surprisingly inoffensive; the icon is presented in a misty, yellow hue, giving it an ethereal glow. Indeed, one might assume Serrano had used digital manipulation were it not for its bold title: ‘Piss Christ’.

‘Piss Christ’s harshest critics weren’t swayed by its aesthetic value, however. Its troublesome exhibition career has seen repeated violent vandalisms, countless death threats against Serrano and the tearing apart of a ‘Piss Christ’ print in the chambers of the US Senate in a call for censorship.

Although early attacks led to its removal from certain galleries, proponents of the work have taken staunch positions in its defence. During an exhibition in Avignon last year, a group of French Catholic fundamentalists took to ‘Piss Christ’ with hammers on Palm Sunday. In the name of freedom of expression, gallery director Eric Mèzill opted to leave the damaged print hanging so that “people [could] see what barbarians can do”.

Despite the public backlash against the artist, ‘Piss Christ’ and many of Serrano’s other works have been celebrated within his field and received a multitude of awards. He has surprisingly found support outside of the mostly secular contemporary art scene too; art historian heavyweight and Catholic nun Wendy Beckett spoke out about what she feels has been a mass misinterpretation of ‘Piss Christ’, explaining that the she sees pissing on a crucifix as an (albeit “simplistic”) metaphor for how the world disregards Christ’s sacrifice.

Serrano, who identifies as Catholic, also distanced the photograph from an interpretation as one dimensional ‘shock art’. While he believes that all art is open to the interpretation of the viewer, he claims that he intended for ‘Piss Christ’ to be a “condemnation of those who abuse the teachings of Christ for their own ignoble ends”.

‘Piss Christ’ is a testament to how tricky the issue of censorship becomes when applied to the ambiguous visual arts – rather than denounce a blasphemer, critics may have denounced a man attempting an unconventional act of veneration. The most pressing question ‘Piss Christ’ raises, then, is who, if anyone, has ultimate authority on how religious iconography can be used?

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