Curiously, the people who most despise Andres Serrano's artwork succeeded in making it an icon.
Most of us might never have heard of Serrano and his art had it not been thrust into the nation's political discourse by the American Family Association and Republican U.S. Sens. Jesse Helms, NC, and Alfonse D'Amato, NY. In 1989, Serrano's photograph Immersion (Piss Christ) became Exhibit No. 1 in a hand-wringing campaign to vilify the National Endowment for the Arts. (Examples of Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic work were soon brought into the fray.)
Republicans failed in their attempts to punish the NEA, but the controversy made Immersion one of the most recognizable photographic works in American art history.
The Christian right saw the photo's depiction of a cheap plastic crucifix submerged in amber fluid as nothing more nor less than blasphemy. Predictably, however, it wasn't the existence of cheap plastic crucifixes that bothered them -- it was the amber fluid.
From a purely visual standpoint, Immersion is beautiful, almost dreamlike. I can look at it for the same amount of time that it takes me to remember that the amber fluid is the photographer's own urine. In fact, if Serrano had kept his mouth shut about what that amber fluid actually was, the photograph might have been received as a simple expression of religious devotion.
Or maybe not. Serrano's oeuvre -- particularly in its more scatological and morbid modes -- is often sensationalistic and self-indulgent. Still, whatever the artist's intent, I find worth in the statement made by Immersion: In creating a market for such things as cheap plastic crucifixes, commercialism exhibits its despicable contempt for humans' deepest-held spiritual values. The free market may allow you to resell a 20-cent injection-molded mockery of a sacred Christian symbol for upwards of $3.95 -- and you may even get rich doing so -- but, you know what? Piss on that. And piss on you for convincing yourself you've provided some kind of spiritual service to the community.
Immersion (Piss Christ) was destroyed Sunday by a group of young Philistines, following Saturday's mob protest by Christian fundamentalists at an Avignon art gallery.
Perhaps coincidentally, the Paul Gaugin painting Two Tahitian Women was attacked last week at the Washington, D.C., National Art Gallery. According to extreme art critic Susan Burns, who made an unsuccessful attempt to destroy the post-impressionist masterpiece, "I feel that Gaugin is evil. He has nudity and is bad for the children. He has two women in the painting and it's very homosexual. I was trying to remove it. I think it should be burned."
It's unclear whether or not this represents a worldwide (or at least Franco-American) right-wing Christian pogrom against art.
So far, the Guardian's reference to the 1989 controversy as "Reagan-era Republicanism" remains uncorrected. While it's true that nearly every American political blunder can be traced to President Ronald Reagan, we shouldn't forget that a lot of dumb things also occurred during President George H.W. Bush's term.
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