Saturday, April 2, 2011

In Celebration of the Sacred and Profane

Piss Christ is a 1987 photograph by artist and photographer Andres Serrano. It depicts a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine. The piece was a winner of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art's "Awards in the Visual Arts" competition, which is sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, a United States Government agency that offers support and funding for artistic projects.

The photograph is of a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of what appears to be a yellow liquid. The artist has described the substance as being his own urine. The photograph was one of a series of photographs that Serrano had made that involved classical statuettes submerged in various fluids—milk, blood, and urine. The photograph is a 60x40 inch Cibachrome print. It is glossy and its colors are deeply saturated. The presentation is that of a golden, rosy medium including a constellation of tiny bubbles. Without Serrano's explanation, the viewer would not necessarily be able to differentiate between the stated medium of urine and a medium of similar appearance, such as amber or polyurethane.

Serrano has not ascribed overtly political content to Piss Christ and related artworks, on the contrary stressing their ambiguity. He has also said that while this work is not intended to denounce religion, it alludes to a perceived commercializing or cheapening of Christian icons in contemporary culture.

The piece caused a scandal when it was exhibited in 1989, with detractors, including United States Senators Al D'Amato and Jesse Helms, outraged that Serrano received $15,000 for the work, part of it from the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts. Serrano received death threats and hate mail, and lost grants due to the controversy. Others alleged that the government funding of Piss Christ violated separation of church and state. The work was vandalized at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, and gallery officials reported receiving death threats in response to Piss Christ. Supporters argued that the controversy over Piss Christ is an issue of artistic freedom and freedom of speech.

Sister Wendy Beckett, an art critic and Catholic nun, stated in a television interview with Bill Moyers that she regarded the work as not blasphemous but a statement on "what we have done to Christ": that is, the way contemporary society has come to regard Christ and the values he represents.

During a retrospective of Serrano's work at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1997, the then Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell, sought an injunction from the Supreme Court of Victoria to restrain the National Gallery of Victoria from publicly displaying Piss Christ, which was not granted. Some days later, one patron attempted to remove the work from the gallery wall, and two teenagers later attacked it with a hammer. The director of the NGV cancelled the show, allegedly out of concern for a Rembrandt exhibition that was also on display at the time.

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