Piss Christ, and liberal excess.
This article was originally
published in Law, Text, Culture. (June, 2000), along with a
reply on the behalf of Dr. George Pell by
Michael Casey, Anthony Fisher OP, Hayden Ramsay along with my
reply to their
criticisms. Serrano was also invited to reply but was unable to meet the
Andres Serrano's Piss Christ
has been at the centre of one controversy or another for a decade.
Much of the debate has focused on questions of tolerance and pluralism.
The claim that Piss Christ is offensive to Christians seems to
suggest, incorrectly I believe, that Piss Christ has neither place
nor precedent within the Christian tradition. To the extent that Piss
Christ questions the boundaries between the sacred and the profane, it
enacts what it represents. It threatens the identity of conservative
Christians who respond by seeking to exclude it from the public realm. I
consider that what is at stake is not merely the question of tolerance
within a pluralist society but also of tolerance within a pluralist
Church. To whom do religious symbols belong and who has the authority to
prescribe the manner in which they are used? It will be my argument in
this article that Piss Christ, regardless of authorial intention,
is a profoundly religious work, to the extent that it raises profound
theological questions that speaks to the very heart of Christianity.
Consequently, after ten years, Piss Christ is still worthy of
Piss Christ found itself at the centre of
controversy once again in October 1997, when Melbourne was host to two
exhibitions of the work of Andres Serrano. Serrano's History of Sex
was showing at the Kirkcaldy Davies Gallery while the National Gallery of
Victoria was holding a Serrano retrospective, coinciding with its high
profile Rembrandt exhibition. As part of the Serrano retrospective,
Piss Christ proved to be of more than historical interest when once
again it became the subject of a number of attacks. The first attack came
from the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne Dr. George Pell who, considering
the work to be blasphemous, applied unsuccessfully for a Supreme Court
injunction to prevent the National Gallery of Victoria from exhibiting the
work. But where the gavel failed the hammer of two youths succeeded, by
prompting Dr Timothy Potts, the director of the NGV, to cancel the show.
Dr Potts claims that he acted out of concern for the safety of his staff,
although the general opinion seems to be that he acted hastily primarily
out of anxiety for the Rembrandts.
Piss Christ is not
Serrano's more visually striking piece, but it does seem to have generated
its own aura out of controversy, and has subsequently become a sort of
standard bearer for many of the issues that Serrano's work addresses. It
all began in 1989 when Piss Christ, along with the homoerotic
photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, found themselves at the centre of
controversy in the United States, where the forces of the Christian Right
rallied to curtail the National Endowment for the Arts. More recently,
Congress legislated, upheld by the Supreme Court, that the NEA must take
"into consideration general standards of decency" in awarding grants.
(Biskupic, 1998) The "culture wars" in the U.S. were launched by what
could be seen as a ritual counter-desecration, when Senator Alphonse
D'Amato tore up a copy of Piss Christ in the chambers of the U.S.
Senate on May 18, 1989. In so doing, the Senator launched Piss Christ
into prominence, making it a symbol of the excesses of
This issue goes to the heart of the most sacred
American separation of Church and State. It remains to be seen, however,
to which side of the divide the art establishment belongs. Back in
Australia, an infamous piece of Liberal Party electioneering portrayed art
as the domain of the elite. At the National Gallery of Victoria the art
establishment certainly behaved as if it were a Church, treating its
Rembrandts as if they were their most sacred relics. It is a shame that
the juxtaposition of Serrano with Rembrandt was seen as a cause for
anxiety rather than an opportunity. Surely, our understanding and
appreciation of the work of both artists would have benefited if
such a conversation had been allowed to take place. Not only would the
many baroque themes and forms of Serrano's work have been brought to our
attention, but we could also have discovered new ways of looking at
Rembrandt, and the manner in which he also deals with the ambiguity of the
abject and its relation to the sacred. I am not suggesting that Serrano be
put on the same level as Rembrandt, but rather that misplaced reverence
does no service to Rembrandt.
Due to its high profile, Piss
Christ has come to be seen as emblematic of Serrano's "tableaux"
dealing with fluids; blood, urine, milk and sperm. Taken out of this
context, however, Serrano's play upon baroque themes with a minimalist
palette tends to get lost.1 But whatever the artist's painterly
intentions, they have been overshadowed by the religious aspect of his
work. It is my contention that it is Serrano's exploration of the relation
between the abject and the sacred that makes Piss Christ not only
good art, but good religious art, bordering on the iconic. I am thinking
of the theological meaning of icon in which the icon is less a
representation than a window onto a deeper reality. Piss Christ is
also a parable in which our expectations are turned outside down in order
that the sacred may manifest, because as Hegel expressed: "the familiar is
not understood precisely because it is familiar."
The history of
its reception appears to show that Serrano's work in general and Piss
Christ in particular has already unsettled and transgressed many
boundaries and in the process questions that which is most familiar. Maybe
it is not so much a question of the sacred and the profane so much as the
sacred and the mundane. Those who consider Piss Christ to be
blasphemous would seem to consider that Serrano has profaned a
sacred object. In doing so he is considered to have transgressed a
distinction that should remain respected and protected. Serrano, they
might consider, has in effect pissed on God. Serrano has transgressed upon
the sacred with the ultimate profanity. But is it not possible that
Piss Christ also reveals a genuine and insightful religiosity? In a
letter to the NEA, Serrano argues that he did not consider Piss
Christ impious or blasphemous.
The photograph, and the title
itself, are ambiguously provocative but certainly not blasphemous. Over
the years, I have addressed religion regularly in my art. My Catholic
upbringing informs this work which helps me to redefine and personalize my
relationship with God. My use of such bodily fluids as blood and urine in
this context is parallel to Catholicism's obsession with "the body and
blood of Christ." It is precisely in the exploration and juxtaposition of
the symbols from which Christianity draws it strength.
is the title that causes the offence. It is the title that frames
the work and which brings the juxtaposition of the sacred and the
abject to the fore. A related work, Piss Light, while
containing the same visual elements as Piss Christ could
indeed be considered to be a Piss "lite" to the extent that
the title is less confrontational. Indeed, if it is the title that
provokes the most offence it could also be seen to evoke the irony
of the inscription placed above the cross as recounted by the
gospels: "The King of the Jews". But then, the irony of that gesture
has also been obscured through familiarity.
The circus that surrounded the Serrano exhibition at the
NGV was well encapsulated by a Leunig cartoon that appeared in the paper
at the time. It depicted an outraged Archbishop at the foot of the cross
crying, "you'll be hearing from our lawyers." Leunig is to my mind quite
astute in his observation that the desire to protect and quarantine the
sacred can quite easily tend towards the absurd. Piss Christ
reminds us that the cross was a sign of ignominy. It was not a symbol
commonly used by the early Christians, because for them its associations
were all too clear. Theologically, the death of Jesus is God's highest
self-divestment or kenosis. It is here that the definite Christian
revelation of God is to be found; in life and death of Jesus, his
renunciation of mastery and identification with servitude, the poor and
the oppressed and all those we treat like shit.
implication is that the concept of divine sovereignty as divine mastery
over the world must be abandoned.2 God's place is with the abject every bit
as much as it is on the high altar of the cathedral. Yes, the crucifix as
a triumphant symbol is a delicious irony in keeping with the spirit of the
gospels. But that irony is lost when we forget its strong association with
both ignominy and abjection. Then it merely becomes a sign of domination.
In denying negation in God, classical Christian thought obscured one of
its most profound insights into suffering. To speak to questions of
suffering and injustice Christian thought must uncover its suppressed
elements and acknowledge that its symbols, like the divine, cannot be
mastered. Serrano's Piss Christ goes some way towards doing
Piss Christ raises profound
theological questions concerning Christianity's relation to the logic of
sacrifice that has shaped culture. It is a relation marked by ambivalence
due to the strength of both sacrificial and anti-sacrificial trajectories
within the Christian tradition. Piss Christ is indeed blasphemous
to extent that it subverts the sacrificial interpretation of Christ's
death. But in doing so it is also prophetic to the extent that it calls to
mind something perhaps even more essential and original to Christianity.
It is this issue that I want to explore in the remainder of this article
using Piss Christ as an aid for reflection. Like any good art work
Piss Christ is evocative rather than didactic and revels in an
ambiguity that only individual acts of interpretation can clarify. But
already I am implicated in that which Serrano questions. We cannot help
but seek to impose order on an otherwise messy world.
Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim states that,
known religious beliefs . . . always suppose a bipartite division of
the whole universe, known and knowable, into two classes which
embrace all that exists, but which radically exclude each other.
Sacred things are those which the interdictions protect and isolate;
profane things those to which these interdictions are applied and
which must remain at a distance. (Durkheim, 1965:
At one level Piss Christ seems to transgress the
distinction between the sacred and the profane. Closer examination reveals
however that things are not so simple. The separation of the sacred and
the profane has meant that the sacred is itself hedged in by prohibitions.
By its very opposition to the profane, the sacred by its nature threatens
the social order of everyday profane existence while at the same time
legitimising its institutions. The function of sacrifice here is to
establish order and mark boundaries. Sacrifice constructs and protects the
identity of the community whether through expelling its impure elements or
by purifying and legitimating lines of descent. In either case, sacrifice
constitutes culture by separating it from nature. In accordance with the
logic of sacrifice anything overly ambiguous or permeable that defies the
principle of non-contradiction becomes the excluded middle. That which
confounds this "A / not A" distinction is considered to be impure to the
extent that it "departs from symbolic order" or is
"incompatible with the Temple".(Kristeva, 1982: 91) In this way
sacrificial logic mimics the whole system of signification conceived as a
system of differences.
According to this understanding of
signification - that derives from Saussure among others - meaning is not a
function of the relation between the sign and that to which it points, but
is rather a function of its difference from other signs. Meaning is not so
much a matter of indexical relation - even an animal knows that smoke is
an index of fire - but of symbolic relations. Consequently, i mpurity is
not a quality of the thing in itself but a function of the thing outside
of its proper place. Part of the function of sacrifice is, if not to
domesticate the sacred, at least to keep it in its place. A vivid
historical testimony to this can be found in the death of Captain Cook who
learnt this lesson the hard way. When Cook arrived at the Hawaiian Islands
near an important shrine during the four months of Lono, he was mistaken
for the god Lono and was worshipped. When he returned outside of the time
of Lono he was perceived as a threat, killed and sacrificed.
tension between the sacred's disruptive power and our desire to
domesticate it is paralleled by our horror of the abject to the extent
that it also threatens to break down and blur boundaries. The abject,
according to the highly influential analysis of Julia Kristeva, are those
things that blur the neat distinction between subject and object and
consequently threaten the substantiality of identity. Culture is adverse
to the abject. It is its antinomy. Serrano explores the abject not only in
his Fluids series but also in his confrontation with death in
The Morgue in which the abject is taken to its "limit". Kristeva
suggests that, "if dung signifies the other side of the border, the place
where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening
of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no
longer I who expel, `I' is expelled. The border has become an object. How
can I be without border?" (Kristeva, 1982: 3-4.)
It is intriguing
to consider that it is perhaps anxiety about borders that lies at the
heart of the U.S. "culture wars". The fear of so called "liberal excess"
perhaps finds its clearest voice in the cry: "is nothing sacred?" The
provocation of border anxiety is, after all, a common denominator in the
works of both Serrano and Mapplethorpe. The anxiety that Mapplethorpe
provokes finds its expression, not in the abject so much as in the
destabilisation of sexual identity that manifests in homophobia. Iris
Marion Young considers homophobia to be the most trenchant of border
anxieties precisely because unlike other physical distinctions of race,
sex, or disability, the border between gay and straight is so permeable.
(Young, 1990: 146) The homosexual to the extent that he defies the A / not
A distinction is an "abomination". The interesting thing about homophobia
however is that it tends too manifest most clearly amongst those who doth
protest too much.
Similarly, there seems to be an aura of the
disingenuous about any accusation of blasphemy. The line between the
domestication and the protection of the sacred is so thin as to be
permeable. But then when a church identifies itself too closely with the
sacrificial logic of exclusion, a gesture like Serrano's will inevitably
call that identity into question. The abject, however, by definition
cannot be domesticated. It is for this reason that Georges Bataille in his
effort to retrieve a sense of the sacred that was unable to be
domesticated sought to re-establish the ancient association of the sacred
with the abject as that which exceeds the grasp of reason under the name
"heterology". Heterology is the science of the sacred that has not
ossified into doctrines and dogma. Bataille believed that once
objectified, the sacred became a thing and ceased to be sacred.
Heterology, Bataille considered, is mindful of the fact that our notions
of "God" all too often become obstacles to the sacred. Heterology
the science of what is
completely other. The term agiology [the study of the holy] would
perhaps be more precise, but one would have to catch the double meaning
of agio (analogous to the double meaning of sacer),
soiled as well as holy. But it is above all the term
scatology (the science of excrement ) that retains in the present
circumstances (the specialization of the sacred) an incontestable
expressive value as the doublet of an abstract term such as
heterology.(Bataille, 1985: 102n.)
The historian Caroline Walker
Bynum has demonstrated the manner in which, for the medieval imagination,
the status of the things that the body left behind became a question of
vital importance for eschatology to the extent that questions of
eschatology and scatology sometimes became intertwined. What is it, the
medievals asked, that is resurrected with the resurrection of the body?
What was the status of food, finger nail clippings, dead skin and hair?
What worried the medieval imagination was the relation between identity
and change and the boundary between what is other to the self and what is
intrinsic to the identity, understood in terms of the integrity of the
body. (See Bynum, 1995.) The medievals however were suspicious of all
processes of becoming. It was rather stasis and self containment that
seemed to signify perfection. It was for this reason that the crucifixion
of Christ held so much fascination, precisely because it so contradicted
the metaphysical idea of perfection while making his humanity so vivid.
Crucifixion was generally considered to be the most abject of
deaths and for this reason the criminal was executed outside the limits of
the city. He was literally expelled from society. In the case of Christ's
crucifixion this state of abjection was experienced bodily through
piercing and scourging, "like water draining away", (Psalm 22: 14.) the
boundary between inside and outside collapsed. The permeability of
Christ's body was such that many medieval mystics came to identify the
body of Christ as feminine. "Not only was Christ enfleshed with flesh from
a woman; his own flesh did womanly things: it bled, it bled food and it
gave birth." (Bynum, 1992: 101.) In the words of Marguerite of Oingt, his
"veins burst when in one day [he] gave birth to the whole world." (Bynum,
1992: 97) Birth is of course a very messy process.3
In the light of so much
abjection, piss is surely a very mild thing. Or is the issue one of
presumption of Serrano's part that he should so identify with Christ as to
immerse a crucifix in his own urine? To the extent that Serrano in his
Fluids series uses not only urine but blood, sperm and milk, it is
clearly not the piss itself that is significant so much as bodily fluids
in general. Bodily fluids defy the myth of self containment which is why
the crucifixion has always been such a stumbling block for Platonic
metaphysics. Which is why the death of God needs to be proclaimed over and
A more specifically Christian
understanding, on the other hand, would focus not so much upon the
abjection of sacrifice but upon a God identifies with those who are
"abjectified". Despite common perceptions, the sacrificial interpretation
of the death of Jesus can be found in only one book of the New Testament,
and that book, the Letter to the Hebrews, is about the end of
sacrifice. The overall logic of the New Testament could be seen to
overturn the sacrificial distinction between the sacred and the profane
rather than reinforce it. For Nietzsche it is the "death of God" that
abolishes the logic of sacrifice and the metaphysical distinction between
the "true" and apparent world that has served to denigrate the everyday
world of experience. (Nietzsche, 1982a: 485-6)4 Nietzsche hopes that with its abolition
the everyday may itself be infused with the aura that had previously been
reserved for the sacred. In this at least, Nietzsche is highly
The end of sacrifice is most clearly expressed
within the Eucharist which is the paramount sacrament of Christian
identity. As Kristeva expresses succinctly: "to eat and drink the flesh
and blood of Christ means . . . to transgress symbolically the Levitical
prohibitions, to be symbolically satiated." (Kristeva, 1982: 119) Sin
comes to reside no longer in the impurity of the object but in the
subjective will. But even though the New Testament ostensibly presents us
with the end of sacrifice, sacrifice has remained an intrinsic part of
Christian understanding. The sacramental theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet
concedes that while throughout the history of Christianity the
anti-sacrificial has been retained and lived by an elite, the most common
representation and practice has tended towards the sacrificial. (Chauvet,
1995: 310) It would appear, therefore, that there is a strong tendency -
psychological or cultural - towards the logic of sacrifice that cannot be
effectively denied, but which can perhaps be redeemed.
denial of sacrifice does not escape the sacrificial logic. The attempt to
simply negate the A / not A binary remains trapped by the very logic that
it is trying to avoid. Simple liberalisation has its own inherent dangers.
Chauvet warns that to conceive a God who is "all love" in reaction to the
vengeful God can be just as perverse. "When `love', under the pretext of
forgiveness, can no longer forbid anything, when it is itself no longer
structured by a law and thus by prohibitions, this excess of love, to
which one can never respond adequately . . . risks being experienced
imaginatively as an unpayable debt." (Chauvet, 1995: 315) It becomes in
effect a persecution. It is perhaps the return of the sacred excess as
exemplified by Bataille's potlatch in which the spiralling game of
one-upmanship under the pretext of generosity aims at the destruction of
the other. Piss Christ does not deny the logic of sacrifice. Rather, it
subverts it by bringing it into contact with its repressed / contaminating
There is one more approach by which to make sense of the
issues surrounding Piss Christ and its relation to both the sacred
and sacrifice. The structuralist paradigm describes a bipartite division
that structures all systems of signification according to two distinct yet
inseparable logics. These two logics could perhaps be understood in terms
of A:B rather than A / not A to the extent that neither is reducible to
the other. Roman Jakobson described these axes of signification in terms
of the tropes of metaphor and metonymy which he considered to be condensed
expression of the axes themselves. The metaphoric is the axis of
selection, denotation and identity whereas the metonymic is the axis of
combination, connotation and difference. All systems of signification
revolve around these two axes. Speech, for example, "implies a
selection of certain linguistic entities and their
combination into linguistic units of a higher degree of
complexity." (Jakobson, 1971: 51) Within these parameters, sacrifice
aligns itself with the metaphoric to the extent that it operates according
to principles of substitution, gathering meaning around a unificatory
centre. Sacrifice, Julia Kristeva suggests, mimics the institution of the
symbolic order. "It solemnizes the vertical dimension of the sign: the one
that leads from the thing that is left behind, or killed, to the meaning
of the word and transcendence." (Kristeva, 1982: 72-3) Metaphor becomes
privileged through its association with the paternal myth and the "name /
law of the father" as the keystone of signification. Similarly, Nancy Jay
has shown how sacrifice accomplishes what fatherhood, seen as a
non-natural conventional relation, cannot bring about, namely: a mediation
between the symbolic and the `natural' indexical bond that is considered
the prerogative of motherhood. (Jay, 1992) Consequently, metonymy has come
to be associated with the feminine and the messy process of becoming that
sacrifice attempts to transcend but which the Christian tradition from
time to time has nonetheless remembered.
For Western metaphysics,
the substantiality of the metaphoric remains the ideal, the one, the goal
to which the less substantial metonymic processes of becoming are
sacrificed. Christianity through its complicity with metaphysics has, as
Bataille observed, "made the sacred substantial." (Bataille, 1985, 242)
Through its alliance with metaphysics, Christianity has forgotten that the
cross was meant to be a "stumbling block". As long as it is interpreted
according to the logic of sacrifice the cross will remain the great symbol
of the transcendence of the bodily processes of becoming. In
effect, it becomes just another sacrifice even if it is the sacrifice
par excellence. In sacrifice, Jay explains, "death disorganizes the
victim ( a product of sexual reproduction) only to permit re-organization
on another level, that of eternal social structures." (Jay, 1992: 149) The
sacrificial interpretation of Christ's death consequently threatens to
obscure the meaning of the incarnation by sacrificing the particular to
the universal. Serrano's attempt to return the crucifix to the bodily
processes of becoming could be seen as an attempt to retrieve the meaning
of the incarnation. Just as the death of Jesus can only be understood in
the light of the resurrection, neither should it be separated from the
ethical orientation of his whole life as a man for others. The gospels
show that in practice - breaking the Sabbath and dining with sinners -
this often involved the transgression of the sacred law's interdictions.
But if instead the Christian revelation in Jesus is totalised in terms of
his sacrificial death, then the meaning of the incarnation is trivialised.
Far from challenging the status quo, the incarnation becomes
absorbed into it, in obedience to the law of the Father. Consequently, the
cross itself, far from being a stumbling block, becomes a new
principle of totalisation, the ruling principle of Western metaphysics.
The funny thing about such metaphysical principles or
archai, however, is that to the extent that they govern a
structure, they escape its structurality. (Hart, 1989: 83) Consequently,
they also the blind-spot of the system to the extent that they must simply
be assumed. Believed to guarantee the identity of the system, the ruling
metaphysical principle is not self-grounding but has its own foundation
elsewhere. So while the metaphysical concerns itself with identity, this
identity is itself "undecidable" from within the system. From the point of
view of the system then, the ruling principle is structurally
unsound. As a result, it serves to cover over the flaws and cracks of the
system. It is the metaphysical rug under which the dirt is
swept. Given time, it will eventually come to take on the
characteristics of the dirt and the cracks that it was meant to hide. In a
reversal of Psalm 118, the corner stone of the entire symbolic order
becomes itself the abject, the blind spot in the system that the artist
here displays for our edification. Serrano returns this
arche to its repressed and forgotten element, the metonymic as
expressed by the biological processes that have been abjected by the
symbolic order. Perhaps in contemplating Piss Christ we can restore
some to the cross some of its subversive power.
(1985) Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927 -39.
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Biskupic, Joan. (1998)
" `Decency' can be weighed in art's agency funding." Washington Post.
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New York, Zone Books.
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(1995) Symbol and Sacrament. A Sacramental Reinterpretation of
Christian Existence. Collegeville, Minnesota. The Liturgical
Durkheim, Emile, (1965) The Elementary Forms of Religious
Life, New York, The Free Press.
Hart, Kevin, (1989) The
Trespass of the Sign. Deconstruction, theology and philosophy.
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Jay, Nancy. (1992) Throughout
Your Generations Forever. Chicago, Chicago University
Karsnicki, Alex. (1996) Andres Serrano at the Kansas City Art
(1982a) Powers of Horror. New York, Columbia University Press.
Nietzsche, Friedrich, (1982a). The Portable Nietzsche. Ed.
Walter Kaufmann. Middlesex, Penguin.
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Young, Iris Marion. (1990) Justice and
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"Serrano noted that his intent was to use the
fluids in the same way a painter would, yet instead of using paint to
represent the thing - say red for blood, yellow for flesh, - he would use
the real substances; substance not just representation." Alex Karsniki.
"Andres Serrano at the Kansas City Art Institute."
2 Has not the crucifix itself
functioned as a symbol of sovereignty? In which case the "culture wars"
are also being fought over who has sovereignty over this particular
3 It will
perhaps be worthwhile to recall that in the book of Leviticus childbirth
required a longer period of isolation before purification than any other
state of temporary pollution.
4 Piss Christ could
be seen to illustrate Nietzsches view that "all things that live long are
gradually saturated with reason [so] that their origin in unreason becomes
improbable." (Nietzsche, 1982b: