SO its after Christmas and New Years, finally we are delivered from the utter melancholy (and the infinite sadness) of 2018, now we are fully within the year of our Lord 2019, and I go and choose this, THIS outrageous topic for my first post in the new year. Strap in my dear readers, for this is a piece that might challenge you, but more importantly, it sure is challenging me. Furthermore, if we are diving into “problematic” things, this piece stretches to the utter limit of the whole point of this series to begin with, a “reactionary/Rightist/TRAD” or…whatever, defense of certain aspects and works of modern/contemporary art. I also intend to give a little ode in my own way, to one of the biggest fine art popularizes in this century, Sister Wendy Beckett. BBC presenter, Nun, and art historian whom recently passed away in the year’s closing after living a long and very saintly life, teaching the beauty and Godly nature of art to everyone.
This piece relative to the others, if i may use such a crude and juvenile metaphor, is like listening to hard rock since you were a kid, and then suddenly discovering blackened-slam death metal, some things get really….really lost in translation once you make that gigantic grand canyon leap into oblivion; Never the less, I shall charge on, and hopefully get a few screws turning to not just the Trad crowd, the online religious flock, but even normies who are mostly off-put and stunned by the mere mention of this piece. I have even seen atheists say “TOO FAR” when witnessing this illuminated sight of pure transgression, what most would chalk-up to crass and child-like edginess being elevated into “high culture” by the profane and nihilistic anti-christian western art world/media. I certainly thought the same many years ago (and there is still truth to that assessment, lets be honest). What am I talking about exactly? I seem to be rambling on and on, hopefully creating much needed literary suspense! Well, maybe not….the piece I am referring to, if you have not guessed already, is one of the most controversial pieces of art ever created, it is simply two mind-shattering, viscerally charged, impactful, vivacious, ominous, and terrifyingly edgy words…..PISS CHRIST.
I remember a very long time ago, I was first getting into being a political junkie (please, for those of you with children, make sure this never happens to them), i first found out about Piss Christ from my favorite discussion show at the time, one that was fairly popular and original here in Canada back in the late 90s/early-mid 2000s. I will not mention the name of this show, because it’s the name of its host, whom has since had a “fall from grace” (to put it mildly) in terms of being a backstabber and a political/religious turncoat, but that is for another article.
There was the whole infamous issue of the “danish cartoons” from Kurt Westergaard making the news cycle at the time, and the subsequent middle eastern riots that killed if i recall, 200 or so people over it. The idea that art has consequences for the first time came alive in such a visceral way in the 21st century, because before our bourgeois detachment from everything, especially the artistic and aesthetic, art always had profound consequences on the direction of civilization itself; This particular host (whom has since abandoned his flimsy Catholicism in the most pubic and obnoxious of ways, choosing to appease and play the sycophant to Canada’s top Brahmin caste identity group) complained that the New York Times back in the early 90s, plastered the image of Piss Christ on the full page front cover of the Sunday (Sunday of all days) arts and culture edition, yet chose to not depict the image of Muhammad with a bomb on his head from Westergaard, stating that they can “describe the image with words”.
Of course I was young, and still caught up in that inane, mainstream conservative onanist obsession with pointing out leftist hypocrisy, before i realized this is an exercise in futility. Never the less, this segment had a profound impact on me in terms of the interplay between art and politics. Ezra Levant’s paper “The Western Standard” at the time, caught a human rights commission case for displaying the cartoons. He challenged the HRC, taped the whole trial, and became (for a time before his later scummy business practices were revealed, and cringe-worthy content production at Rebel media) a talking head hero among the very few Canadian conservative media and opinion outlets. Between that and the Mark Steyn case, I felt like I was right in the middle of it all, clinging to daily updates and opinion pieces in the National Post, watching this particular discussion show religiously, etc. And it really stuck with me that there were no similar consequences for Andres Serrano, the artist behind Piss Christ (1989) and a whole series of religious iconography being submerged in bodily fluids, mainly blood and urine. The only consequences of Piss Christ was the smashing of a billboard, and a few denouncements on capital hill by religious right politicians, by then being totally diminished in their influence on American society.
The Piss Christ Controversy re-imagined.
Let me first say, that there are two levels to assessing “controversy” in art, or at least there should be more than what people usually refer to dismissively, and in a relativistic manner as “matters of taste”; There is the A) ephemeral controversies that are predicated upon social and cultural context, and B) art controversies that are colored with an eternal character to them, that are filled with the iconoclastic weight of immense subversion and profanity in them. Piss Christ would fit the ladder, while I would say in our age of hyper-sensitive bourgeois politics and “call out culture”, banning John William Waterhouse’s sensual nudes would go into the ladder category, despite what the usual mainstream bloggersphere suspects would have you believe.
What really makes Piss Christ stand out as the pinnacle of art controversies? Perhaps there is something deeply archetypal to its imagery, something that grinds at such a universal and ever-present image in the soul of humanity that is begs to grab your attention, and burn that glowing, yellow image within your psyche. Even the Atheist stutters involuntarily at the sight of it, for deep down, the Crucifixion embodies a driving symbol of not just western civilization, but is a symbol that plunges into the depths of human history itself. One must fully realize the full implications of the image of Christ on the Cross for every Christian and non-christian alike. It is the suffering of the Lord fully realized in embodiment, and the fundamental promise of salvation, and eternal heavenly love to all of mankind in the redemption of sins. To quote Saint Augustine:
“As they were looking on, so we too gaze on his wounds as he hangs. We see his blood as he dies. We see the price offered by the redeemer, touch the scars of his resurrection. He bows his head, as if to kiss you. His heart is made bare open, as it were, in love to you. His arms are extended that he may embrace you. His whole body is displayed for your redemption. Ponder how great these things are. Let all this be rightly weighed in your mind: as he was once fixed to the cross in every part of his body for you, so he may now be fixed in every part of your soul”.
So here we have the image of the redeemer of all mankind being submerged in a vat of urine, a lurid display, an inversion of sacred imagery. Like most, if not all, Christians, especially being part of the Roman Catholic Church, i harbored a deep hatred for this piece of photography/installation art, and a deeply held suspicion of modern or contemporary art in general. That is until i started to seriously study art and aesthetic philosophy, and took an interest in artistic modernism, only then was I sufficiently objective to view Piss Christ in a bit of a different light. Keep in mind that I still struggle with even a partial “defense” or apologia for the piece, for it puts us Christians in a position of disturbing and uncomfortable contemplation.
On the one hand, the modern world and its notions of “matters of taste”, relativism in art, and respecting the “freedoms” of blasphemers simply will not do for any serious person of a traditionalist faith. These concerns have served as justification for letting all manners of crass and vulgar trash slip by, it is patently absurd at this point. However, the artist in me, the philosopher in me, wishes to make a distinction, a third postilion if you will, between outright censorship and total freedom. Let us say by some Godly miracle, we achieve a monarchical integralist society tomorrow. We finally slay the beast of oppressive modern liberalism, the Church and the family is saved, etc. Certainly in a post-liberal society, we would be free to implement various policies that violated a number of those sacred cows, those images of thought that liberalism makes us believe are “universal goods” that are even beyond question (and we all know applying pressure comes not from legislation in modern liberal society, but from social/cultural/media enforced orthodoxies).
Now granted, in this imagined future trad post-liberal society, surely we must be more sophisticated then to just outright banish ideas and things, we are better off informing people of the dangers of certain things then outright book or museum burning. Perhaps we would limit the exposure of certain dangerous things to people whom cannot handle them, whom do not have the capacity to detach the works of the intellect from that of the passions and of the heart. Pornography would have to be the first to go outright. But what of dangerous ideas and modern art? Perhaps the few, the scholarly, the educated, the church men, and the university aficionado of old (once we restore the sacred place of what the university once was) can have a degree of exposure to certain dangerous ideas and objects, for rigorous philosophic and theological contemplation can only be done by (to quote the Tao Te Ching) “staying close to darkness”, and this would of course include Piss Christ.
This is all just me rambling however, rambling upon a fantasy that only a future collapse of monolithic proportions might bring about (or some wired anarchic patchwork system, whichever one). For now we have to work within the context of baseless and profane liberal “freedoms” granted to every johnny sex pervert. nihilistic Nancy, or Tracy trash artist (yes, that was a slight). This lands us to the question however, if we did land upon some future integralist society, would Piss Christ even be worth contemplating to begin with? Even by the most learned, Godly and intuitive of clergymen and philosopher-artists.
The answer I would have given years ago would have been a solid no, let all of its prints and poster displays be burned out of the public record, and ban Serrano for ever taking another photograph of bodily fluids again! But now….I feel quite differently, and I would think that Piss Christ is worthy of contemplation for a number of reasons, not of the usual flak about “artistic freedom”, that is a challenging bugaboo topic on its own right, but because it is a message that is not easily discernible at first glance.
Unconventional Trad Art in Piss-Earth.
Lets face it, we are about to be submerged in Piss-Earth, and there seems to be not a paddle in sight on the ammonia seas of corrosive totality. We languish in the decay of modernity, and it seems that Piss Christ is mocking us in its callous and shallow edginess, or so one would think.
The popular interpretation of Piss Christ is that is is simply an act of rebellious edginess, the most simple and to the point act of anti-christian art, only rivaled by actually burning a bible. The band Fear Factory even wrote a song about it at the time:
Where are we now?
When we are blind
You left behindWere you betrayed?
Or did you lie?
Our common fate
Our common demiseWhere is the son?
To light the way
Along the path
Of our dismayLook to the sky
On judgement day
A human god
That was man-madeSo we lie
So we lie
So we lie
So we lieAnd so we rise
Just to fall down
You’re never found
You can just feel that 90s/early-2000s edginess extrude from each verse, And Fear Factory has also had that post-human/apocalyptic trans-humanist bent to their lyrical concepts. Certainly the media caricature of the metal community found great amusement in Piss Christ at the time, and yet this quaint form of edgy teen angst seems so passe’ and antiquated, we have much more ironic and sophisticated form of meme-edginess now.
But despite this popular view of the supposed intent behind the creation of Piss Christ, Serrano had quite a different opinion on the matter: Not only is Serrano a practicing life-long Catholic, but took great offense to the media simply describing his installation as “Christ in a jar of piss”. Serrano intended to explore the relationship between the meaning of the embodiment of Christ and its relation to the worldly itself, expressing his own dream-like metal obsessions with Christian iconography, often dealing with blood and meat. Through cloudy red waves we see the images of saints and the Virgin Mary, we see a statue of Christ in another photo shoot next to a rib-exposed pork carcass, a spinal cord and brain next to the cross, etc. To the average person, especially of the faith, this seems absurd and offensive, but Serrano assures us this is a very contemporary art way of exploring these mental images of the Christian faith, for as he states “like the message of Christ, people see death in these images, people see waste being expelled, but in this death, I also see life in them, or rather, death is not the end you know“.
Serrano, as hard as it is to believe, is not wishing to tear down and offend the image of Christ, but rather venerate Christ in a very eccentric and earthly way. It through transgression (I am Channeling Bataille here) and through the transgressive act, an act of the profane and the worldly, that one finds that pathway towards the divine. The limit experience of sacred art in fact can only be mediated by such shocking and profane manners, for it is the weight of the world, and the weight of the nihilism of modernity that must first be dealt with, and its power over us lessened through repeated acts of pure force and transgression. You must reify the utter limits of profane modernity in order to subvert it, so by tarnishing the image of Christ in Piss, one sees that Christ is illuminated in Piss Earth still. Only a very conscious artist can do this, and only an artist of faith can reach such conclusions, even going so far as to fight against popular interpretations of the work. Or so, all of this is conjecture, and it is understandable that this pseudo-sophisticated analysis of Piss Christ will not ease the offensiveness of such a piece.
All of these objective and second-chance considerations I have given to the nature of Piss Christ and its meaning was solidified in a Bill Moyers interview with Sister Wendy Beckett. Moyers being the liberal PBS journalist De-Jour, tries to trap the old nun in making some religious denouncement of Piss Christ, playing into some leftist media-caricature of religious sensibilities, but Sister Wendy is too clever for that; Sister Wendy goes on to explain that it is “comforting art” in that it does not really require skill or gravitas, it is “too easy for people to see it and have a reaction”. Piss Christ is deliberately explicit, lacking in subtly, but Sister Wendy, a Catholic nun of all people, vigorously states that she does not denounce the work. Rather, Sister Wendy recognized what Serrano was getting it, but still wisely critiquing the way he went about it. She states that it is not a way to denigrate the nature of Christ, but it is a crude and visceral commentary on the nature of Christ and his position in the modern world. This is what modernity is doing to Christ, this is what PISS EARTH is doing to Christ, and through the acidic seas of decay, Christ still commences to shining.
This is where the angst-ridden fedora atheists get Piss Christ wrong. Piss Christ is a work that comments upon the worldly, even denounces it, and gives us a stark reminder, albeit a crude and lewd one, about how we are treating Christ and his divine message. We are quite simply abandoning Christ to piss; Why is it that we talk about and ponder upon Piss Christ, but we try our best to forget and cast aside similar mockeries. Well let us compare Piss Christ to a similar act, that of the (little published) Biologist and member of the “new atheist horsemen” (or so he thinks. Really he is a new atheist dropout filled with a sense of unwarranted self-importance, an embarrassment even by their standards) PZ Meyers. Awhile ago, PZ got someone to steal a communion host, then posted a picture of it with a nail driven through the center, placed in in a trash bucket with coffee grinds and pages of “The God Delusion”, and writing on his blog “nothing is sacred, IT’S JUST A CRACKER”.
This act is sufficiently shocking, it certainly is making a statement, so why is this not in the Tate next to Tracy Emin’s dirty bed sheets? Perhaps we are now finally desensitized to such acts of childish anti-religiosity, creating a re-sensitization to such things. Maybe people are finally growing tired of such and such artist, musician or internet troll invoking all the impotent rage of the early 2000s “new” atheist movement and making things that are deliberately meant to offend and “own the Christian Trads”. Many have copied the legacy of Piss Christ without even exploring the meaning behind the piece, people naturally see a statue of the Crucifixion in human urine and think its an attempt at being edgy. While Piss Christ itself possesses a metaphysical power to it.
As for my personal view of the piece, I think that what Serrano says is valid, and I have come to realize the partial worth in such a piece, but i also would take Sister Wendy’s view that it does posses a positive meaning, but perhaps the way in which it was concocted and marketed lends itself to the interpretation that it is shock for shock’s sake. I do not know how others react to such an assessment, and I fully sympathize with people who find offense in Piss Christ as just another example of terrible and poorly done contemporary art. I shall leave this essay with you dear reader, to find your own interpretation, as cliched as that sounds. I know that perhaps it is not an example of positive or uplifting art, or even artistic skill, but it certainly gives us quite a violent thrashing in terms of recognizing where Christ’s message is heading in modernity, all will go to ruin if we do not realize his teachings, and the whole world will be consigned into the spiritual oblivion of piss.