In 1987 the American photographer Andres Serrano made a formally sublime, politically charged work titled “Piss Christ” (detail above, in full below), by submerging a 13-inch plastic and wood crucifix into a jar of his own urine and photographing it. The work, by far the most famous in his “Immersions” series, made its debut at New York’s Stux Gallery to little fanfare, and then went on tour as part of the show “Awards in the Visual Arts 7,” a 10-person show for which each artist received a $15,000 fellowship from Winston-Salem’s Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) and was invited to pick her or his works for inclusion. The exhibition traveled to LACMA and the Carnegie-Mellon University Art Gallery without incident, before going on view at Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
In fact it wasn’t until two months after “Awards in the Visual Arts 7″ had left Richmond that the first public complaint about “Piss Christ” emerged. On March 19, 1989, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a letter to the editor from one Philip L. Smith, who wrote:
The Virginia Museum should not be in the business of promoting and subsidizing hatred and intolerance. Would they pay the KKK to do a work defaming blacks? Would they display a Jewish symbol under urine? Has Christianity become fair game in our society for any kind of blasphemy and slander?
The museum’s director, Paul N. Perrot, who had already received a separate letter from Smith, responded the following week in the Times-Dispatch, and that seemed to settle the complaint. But this was only the beginning of the persecution of “Piss Christ.”
A member of reverend Donald E. Wildmon‘s American Family Association (AFA) — which was founded in 1977 under the more telling moniker “National Federation for Decency” — spotted the exchange of letters and alerted the reverend. Wildmon blasted the photograph in the AFA Journal and articulated his unhappiness with the National Endowment for the Arts, which had awarded the artist a $5,000 grant in 1986. The reverend called on others who were outraged by the image to write their elected officials, the NEA, and exhibition co-sponsors like the Rockefeller Foundation. Wildmon and the AFA also sent a letter and a copy of “Piss Christ” to every member of Congress, unwittingly making it surely the best-known work of contemporary art on Capitol Hill. Wildmon sent out mailings calling his supporters to action with screeds such as: “I would never, ever have dreamed that I would live to see such demeaning disrespect and desecration of Christ… Maybe, before the physical persecution of Christians begins, we will gain the courage to stand against such bigotry.”
The campaign worked, and several months later a handful of senators had joined Wildmon’s campaign against the NEA and Serrano. Jesse Helms, the born-again Baptist senator from North Carolina, was one of the most vocal, supporting Wildmon’s crusade and his colleague Alphonse D’Amato, a Republican senator from New York who dramatically tore up a copy of the exhibition catalogue containing “Piss Christ.”
“The senator from New York is absolutely correct in his indignation and in his desaiption of the blasphemy of the so-called artwork,” Helms said. “I do not know Mr. Andres Serrano, and I hope I never meet him. Because he is not an artist, he is a jerk. Let him be a jerk on his own time and with his own resources. Do not dishonor our Lord.”
As punishment for its role in supporting the work of an artist, the NEA saw its funding for the next year cut by $45,000 — $15,000 for the funds it had given Serrano, by way of the NEA-supported SECCA fellowship, and another $30,000 to atone for the sum given in support of a Robert Mapplethorpe show at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art. “My most effective political statement is to keep working,” Serrano told Conremporanea in November 1990. “The NEA controversy clarified that for me. I do not doubt that there are multiple ways to interpret my work, and I welcome that.”
Unfortunately, negative interpretations of the work have only become more violent over the last two decades, and prints of “Piss Christ” have been attacked in Australia and France. In 1997, a Serrano retrospective at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria was canceled when visitor John Allen Haywood removed the photograph from the wall and kicked it, and the following day two teens attacked with a hammer — all after the local Catholic Archbishop had failed to obtain a court injunction blocking the piece from being exhibited at all.
Appearing in court — where he was eventually given a suspended, one-month jail sentence — Haywood was asked what he would say to Serrano if he ever met him, and responded: “I wouldn’t like to say nothing to him. I’d just like to punch him on the nose.”
In 2011, “Piss Christ” once again was on the losing end of a hammer head during an exhibition at the Collection Lambert, the art foundation of Serrano’s longtime Paris dealer Yvon Lambert in Avignon. A day after having to close early when 800 protestors turned up to voice their disapproval of Serrano’s work, and following a stream of death threats against the museum’s employees — “Several people have called saying, ‘If you open, you’re dead,'” a staffer told Reuters — three vandals smashed the photograph and another nearby Serrano work, “The Church.” Though the pieces were damaged beyond repair, the Collection Lambert left them on view through the end of the exhibition “I Believe in Miracles,” which marked the museum’s tenth anniversary, “so the public can appreciate for themselves the violence of the acts,” it said.
Reviewing an exhibition of Serrano’s photographs at Stux Gallery in December 1989, after Wildmon and company’s successful smear campaign, New York Times critic Michael Brenson argued for the complexity of the much-maligned “Piss Christ.”
“The photograph is clean and purified, the reliquary or shrine in which he clearly believes that the word about the body can be stored and spread,” Brenson wrote. “People may agree or disagree with him, or they may question his belief in photography, but how can anyone find in his work just obscenity and disrespect? It is hard to believe that anyone whose faith is searching and secure would not be grateful for what Mr. Serrano has done.”
— Benjamin Sutton (@bhsutton)
(Image: Andres Serrano, “Piss Christ,” 1987. Courtesy the artist, Yvon Lambert.)