Serrano II: Context

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(Continuing a discussion of Serrano’s Piss Christ)

The picture itself is visually glorious. The horror and majesty of the crucifixion are simultaneously captured here in the stark black of the simple wood frame contrasted with the uncomfortably virile red, while the Christ figure, though not yet ascended, looms out of the bloody mist with an understated, yet undefeated glory. The lines of condensation help to draw the observer’s attention up to the right corner, out of frame, as if the face of God figured in the light looked down upon the Messiah, even in death, and declared “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”.

And with all that having been said, I’m hung up (in a way) on the name. Not that I have any problem with the word “piss” as such, even in the context of an artwork dealing with Christ (nothing wrong with Jesus and bodily fluids). However, the name of a piece is often used to help guide the observer along as he looks for the allusive nuances and tentative connections being drawn by the artist. I’m afraid Serrano’s title (as well as the context of his other work) leads me to suspect that there is not much purposefully going on here at all, but that indeed his intention was simple shock-value: Piss Chirst is nothing more than the prettiest in a long line of pictures which pair Serrano’s obsession with bodily fluids and a puerile, art-college undergrad desire to “offend cultural sensiblities”.

A little wikipedia:

“The most famous and notorious of Serrano’s work plays on the relationship between beautiful imagery and vulgar materials, his subject matter often drawing from the potentially controversial and, perhaps, the willfully provocative. Guardian art critic Adrian Searle was not impressed in 2001: he found that Serrano’s photos were “far more about being lurid than anything else… In the end, the show is all surface, and looking for hidden depths does no good.””

This is not to say that Mr. Serrano’s pictures are not skillful, or are not “art”. They most certainly are both. Piss Christ is an extremely powerful image, exquisitely conceived and produced. Many of Serrano’s bodily fluid studies are truly beautiful (e.g. his abstract cibachrome image Untitled VII (Ejaculate in Trajectory).

Nevertheless, like many of Maplethorpe’s homo-erotic works, there does not seem to be (intentionally) much of anything within Serrano’s images themselves that is meant to hint toward any ‘deep’ or multifaceted connections. He seems content to go for the initial shock, the ‘gotcha’ affect:
“That is such a beautiful picture!”
“Yeah, it’s blood and urine.”
“Eew.”

Some of his photographs (and Piss Christ in particular) seem to my mind to trade parasitically on established traditions, purposefully dirtying them not in order to offer any intelligent critique or to encourage us to look at these traditions from a new angle, but merely to blow a raspberry at them: I imagine in junior-high he was one of those delightful children who drew a mustache on the picture of the Mona Lisa in their textbook. In this respect, Piss Christ reminds me somewhat of Dali’s crucifixion scenes (though Serrano seem’s less skillfully intentional), particularly Corpus Hypercubus. Though the technical quality of the work is very respectable, the intellectual and emotional impact of the work is cheap; all gloss and sly, urbane chuckle. There is no love here, no sincerity, no blood (Seerveld, Calvin Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves: Alternative steps in Understanding Art, Toronto: Tuppence Press, 2000. Pg. 76).

Though Mr. Serrano is, again, certainly a skillful photographer (as Dali was a skillful painter), his work taken as a whole also exhibits the typically chic traits of a cynical irony and a knowing wink at beautiful or meta-mythological images and traditional forms, which is so characteristic of what is popularly referred to as ‘postmodern’ art: culturally fearful of being thought ‘unhip’ for being sincere.

Fun Fact: Serrano’s works “Blood and Semen III” and “Piss and Blood” are used as the covers for Metallica’s Load and ReLoad albums. As much as I love Metallica, having your pictures on their jacket art isn’t a roaring endorsement of your class and sophistication. Not that this is a decisive critique, but still…

Though objects do not ‘sin’ as such, I do think that an object could be considered ‘blasphemous’, as it could be rightly considered ‘devotional’, or ‘comic’ or ‘satirical’. Such anthropomorphisms are, I think, entirely appropriate. And since an object cannot in and of itself be good or evil, historical and social context will determine what anthropomorphic descriptors are applicable to a given work. And if this is the case then a work that is, at one point in time or space, ‘blasphemous’, could be in another historical or social context ‘devotional’, or ‘decorative’ (or ‘boring’, for that matter).

Piss Christ suggests to me (when I try to remove what I know of Serrano from the equation) a remarkable amount of truth about our Savior and the nature of His efficacious sacrifice. And yet, the current context confuses and sometimes contradicts these perceived connections (which would, I think, please Serrano).

Perhaps Piss Christ will at some point break free of its current historical/social context (which I believe does makes it ‘blasphemous’, if only in a puerile sort of way) sufficiently to change it’s very meaning and ability to properly edify without potentially stumbling a brother. In other-words, I think it quite likely that, should Piss Christ survive so long, a Christian collector might quite properly have Piss Christ on his wall, to the glory of God.

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