ah, fer Pete’s sake… “Piss Christ” is in the news again

Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon is mad that some French Catholic extremists have defaced Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ”:

It should go without saying, but here it is: An image of Christ isn’t Christ. An artistic comment on religion or idolatry is not an abuse of faith. Serrano, who described himself this week as “profoundly Christian,” once said that the work was a critique of the “billion-dollar Christ-for-profit industry.” And perhaps that’s why the image is so incendiary: It reminds its detractors of the worst aspects of organized religion and its followers, rather than the tenets of the individual who founded it.

Mmmm… I don’t think that’s why the image is incendiary. There’s nothing about the image or its manufacture that gives any clue to Serrano’s intended “critique.” All people see is Jesus in piss. The artist’s piss. Here — check it out for yourself:

What about this says, “I am critiquing the Christ-for-profit industry”? Nothing — unless you want to read that into it in order to justify what seems to be deliberate, largely thoughtless provocation.

I do agree with critic Lucy Lippard that “[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.” There is something mysterious about the image as an image — if you didn’t know it was a photo taken through a bottle of piss, you might be inclined to call this image beautiful, even transcendent.

But you do know. You know because of the name of the piece and because every item of publicity surrounding the “Piss Christ” draws your attention to the fact that the artist has submerged a crucifix in a bottle of his own urine to make this image. And because piss is an unpleasant bodily fluid and a traditional marker of disrespect, we are forced to ask, “Why? Why did he do this?”

There’s a way, of course, in which submerging a crucifix in a bottle of piss could be a commentary on the “Christ-for-profit industry.” Imagine an artist who devotes years to finding ways to collect the urine of people like Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson. Who befriends nurses at clinics where these religious luminaries go for care, or who bravely goes undercover at right-wing fundamentalist conventions and seminars in order to lurk in the men’s room, waiting, dreaming, hoping to catch one of these hypocrites forgetting to flush the urinal. After years devoted to the “Preacher Piss Project,” he finally obtains the samples he needs, submerges a crucifix in that urine, and hangs a photo of the result in a gallery along with a detailed explanation of the materials involved.

That “Piss Christ” would be a commentary on something. That “Piss Christ” would be shocking and political (and maybe illegal). That “Piss Christ” would be challenging those bloated titans of moral indecency in a very intimate and direct way.

But this “Piss Christ”? Well, it doesn’t offend me as blasphemy, but it does offend me as weak, half-hearted art that lacks both clarity and conviction. I’m inclined to agree with art critic Christopher Knight: “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.” Perhaps he’s gotten better over the years — I lack the curiosity to find out. But I hope we hear no more about this dreary piece.

The original kerfuffle, though, is worth remembering. Republican Senators like Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms used Serrano’s grant from the NEA as a reason to complain. Taxpayer dollars were being wasted on filth! Meanwhile, some of the braver (and more electorally secure) Democrats nobly tried to defend the NEA and its mandate. The whole thing replayed itself a few years later with Robert Mapplethorpe, and, indeed, loathing of the NEA is an evergreen rallying point for conservatives.

And… I don’t entirely disagree with them. I’m not remotely concerned about blasphemy, but I’m not sure art is well-served by being publicly funded. Like religion, it might be better off with a mighty and impenetrable wall between it and the government. There’s certainly a HUGE gatekeeper problem; whoever selected “Piss Christ” or supported Karen Finley’s self-indulgent monologuing for a grant is decidedly not representing me in this process, and it’s not clear why even the smallest shred of my tax monies should go to those artists. One can, of course, argue that the promotion of the arts in a very general sense is beneficial to society, but the NEA can make no serious objective argument that these artists are better for society than any other artist. This seems like the silliest thing possible for federal employees to be trying to adjudicate.

Especially now. I suppose there may have been some value in the NEA’s grants to artists in the pre-YouTube era. But now the whole thing seems hilariously redundant. Art is everywhere: here is a good article about David Hobby, who has helped undermine the professional photography industry by giving free photography and lighting lessons online, resulting in a blossoming of semi-pro stock photographers. And here is an example of my favorite form of popular art: the deployment music video.

Art is just omnipresent these days, and the tools to make art now cost five dollars. At this point, I don’t see why any art (other than, perhaps, monumental art) needs government funding to flourish.

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