Art, Trash and Religion: the Serrano Affair revisited.

Who would have expected that Piss Christ would spark off a major public row in Australia, eight years after it was originally made notorious in the United States?

Who would have expected that Piss Christ would spark off a major public row in Australia, eight years after it was originally made notorious in the United States? It was as though Melbourne's version of the controversy was following a script. Archbishop Pell might have been repeating a statement by the American Family Association when he claimed that the work "publicly insults Christians at government expense". Timothy Potts, director of the National Gallery of Victoria, used an argument out of the filing cabinet to defend the Serrano exhibition against Pell's application for an injunction. Then, Piss Christ itself had to be martyred, as it was in 1989 when a reproduction of it was torn up in the US Senate. This time, it was attacked with a hammer. In 1989, Robert Mapplethorpe became Serrano's partner in the pillory and an exhibition of Mapplethorpe's work was cancelled in response to the outcry. Inevitably, the Melbourne debacle culminated in the closure of the Serrano exhibition.
For the next week or so, the newspapers got some great front page colour photos of Serrano beside his assaulted work, and art commentators started to crank up what used to be everybody's favourite debate on censorship versus the radical imagination. Then, just as suddenly as the furore broke, it was gone, blown off the front pages by Cheryl Kernot's political conversion and crowded out of the national agenda by debates about the Republic and the Wik ruling on native title. Why did we bother to stage the Serrano affair at all, when there were matters so much more pressing to engage with in the political arena?
The Serrano affair first time around was, by contrast, thoroughly political. Republican Senators Alfonse D'Amato and Jesse Helms set out to attack the award of a national arts prize to Piss Christ. Conscious of the emotive attachment to free speech in the American tradition, and of its enshrinement in the Constitution, they shrewdly deflected their arguments away from any suggestion that this was the issue. The primary offence, they insisted, was that taxpayers' money was being wasted on "trash". Trash became one of the keywords of the debate. The complaint that the work was offensive was skilfully welded to a charge that it was not, by any commonly accepted standard, art at all:

Helms: What this Serrano fellow did, he filled a bottle with his own urine and then stuck a crucifix down there - Jesus Christ on a cross. He set it up on a table and took a picture of it.
For that, the National Endowment for the Arts gave him $15,000, to honour him as an artist.
I say again, Mr. President, he is not an artist. He is a jerk. And he is taunting the American people...

Those versed in artspeak could elaborate for all they were worth, but Helms was the common man with the courage to cry "Horsefeathers". He spoke for "ordinary people", "decent folk", "American citizens", all of whom were of course "taxpayers". Artists and their supporters had been pretending to a position of superiority from which they poured contempt on all that was valued by those who had to "pick up the tab for their swill". Now was the time for them to be called to account. The American Family Association exhorted all workers to declare themselves artists too, and to challenge the differential treatment of the small group who were allowed to "pig out at the public trough".

Contrary to Helms' insistence, freedom of speech was exactly what this was all about. When the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act was passed in the US Senate in 1965, it was declared that the greatest value of the Arts and Humanities was " the mirror of self-examination which they raise so that society can become aware of its shortcomings as well as its strengths". But twenty years later, right wing lobby groups were discovering the extraordinary power to be gained in a democratic system through a moral majority politics which rhetorically insisted upon the homogeneity of American values. Moral majority politics involved identifying all critical voices as other. To hold up a mirror and invite critical examination was to make a gesture that was both suspiciously motivated and rude. To refuse to participate in what were declared to be majority values was to be valueless, in every sense: to be trash. Those casting themselves as the Voice of America accused Serrano of "bias and bigotry", "a deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity", "blasphemy", "didacticism, gimmickry, shock and mockery", "sacrilege", "calculated ugliness and virulence", "a deformed and calloused conscience", "moral squalor". Mapplethorpe fared worse than Serrano because he had gone one step further, presenting through his art the evidence of a way of life which convinced the Voice of America of the need for some tough moral policework. Mapplethorpe's death from AIDS was repeatedly alluded to in the context of accusations of pornography, including child pornography. The art-as-trash rhetoric was deftly branching out into a scare campaign which linked art, critical commentary and sexual experiment in order to characterise the whole package as a policy commitment to fatal depravity.

Rereading the debates, I have to admit that the Helms faction is far and away the more tactically astute of the two sides. A strategic response would have involved direct argument in favour of public funding for the arts, which in turn would have involved some effective articulation of the public value of the work of artists. Instead, the National Association of Artists' Organisations fell straight into the trap of the free speech argument which Helms had so pointedly avoided:

We believe in the inalienable right of artists to freedom of expression. The freedom to create art is a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. Artists must be accorded this freedom without threat of censorship... American tax dollars must support the constitutional right to free speech.

This was pissing into the wind. Why didn't the National Endowment for the Arts respond instead with a reader friendly statement about Piss Christ and the artist who created it? No-one seems to have considered that "the taxpayer" was due the courtesy of some form of direct communication.

This is in stark contrast to the approach taken by the Adelaide Festival when complaints were made about the use of a Byzantine style icon of the Virgin Mary playing an accordion for its 1998 poster. A press release was immediately issued declaring that the "offence was not intentional", and that the image reflected "how artists around the world were examining and celebrating the nature of the sacred". The Festival management were committed to offering "a vast range of the very finest art and entertainment to all members of the community", and to talking with concerned groups to address the matter of different responses to a highly charged image. In all, the statement is a model example of how to avoid getting artists positioned as other. If something of the kind had been sent to Pell (who is, after all, peddling no hard political agenda, as his intervention in the Wik debate made clear), a revisitation of the Piss Christ debacle might have been avoided. There might then have been the opportunity to explore the relationship between art and religion in Serrano's work without the distortion of a false dichotomy. More attention might have been paid to his more recent projects, and to the impact of his overall contribution as an artist, and from this there might have emerged some sense of what the works have to offer to a multicultural, post-colonial society in crisis.

Serrano was brought up in New York by an African-Cuban mother who spoke no English. He was confirmed in the Catholic church at the age of 13, and his work has always combined an interest in religious iconography with an activist's political concern to use the camera lens for giving focus to the dispossessed. Piss Christ belongs to a relatively immature series of experiments which are predominantly aesthetic. They explore effects of lighting, colour, scale and compositional structure in the creation of religious images, and their use of cheap statues immersed in body fluids is far from being an easy gesture of contempt against the symbols themselves. It is the custom in Puerto Rican households to have a domestic altar covered with mass produced icons. Many Chicano artists share Serrano's ironic interest in the cultural values attached to these cheap artefacts. There may be a transgressive edge in some of his treatments of them, but his work on the whole shows no evidence of being driven by an attitude problem about conformity. Rather, the transgression appears as a side-effect of an enduring commitment to uncensored seeing.

Serrano's camera lens finds the sights most of us avoid taking in. Some of these may have a sensational impact, but they are not recorded in such a way as to promote this. The Ku Klux Klan, for instance, is a sensational enough subject, especially for a non-white photographer, but Serrano by-passes the lurid stereotypes to look these figures in the eye - or, more exactly, to peer through the eyeholes in their home-made robes. Close up, the robes tell a very different story from the one they communicate in cinematic longshot. The hoods with their improvised construction and gauche stitching lines betray the poverty and limited resources of their owners. The Klan series was originally exhibited together with a series of studio portraits of the New York homeless, entitled Nomads. The Morgue series has enough gruesome charisma to satisfy Patricia Cornwell fans, but there are ways in which we avoid looking, even when indulging a form of sadistic curiosity. What is unbearable is the bloodless pathologist's cut on a young adult foot, or the still glowing forehead of an infant who has died from meningitis. Christian imagery of the Passion echoes of its own accord. Serrano observes people in ways that refuse to select out the evidence of painful, strange or eccentric experience. Even in his most confronting documentation of sexual behaviour, there is something in the observation that might be called compassion. Not the patriarchal compassion of institutionalised Christianity - the kind that issues from a position of safe detachment and wants to rescue or redeem - but compassion as the capacity for undiscriminating identification with whatever is human. That's an influence that can help to make the difference between a divisive and paranoid society clinging to a fantasy of common values, and an inclusive society capable of negotiating between different ways of life.


The 1989 controversy over Serrano's work is fully documented in Richard Bolton, ed. Culture Wars (New York: The New Press, 1992)

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