Piss Christ, and liberal excess.
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
to their criticisms. Serrano was also invited to reply but was
unable to meet the editors' deadline.
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 consideration.
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
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
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
Generally, it 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
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
Its clear 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 this.
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.
In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim
all 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: 52)
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
The 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.
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:
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 over again.
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 incarnational.
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.
A simple 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 elements.
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
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
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.
Bataille, George. (1985) Visions of Excess: Selected Writings,
1927 -39. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Biskupic, Joan. (1998) " `Decency' can be weighed in art's
agency funding." Washington Post. Friday, June 26;
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Chauvet, Louis-Marie. (1995) Symbol and Sacrament. A Sacramental
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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
Jay, Nancy. (1992) Throughout Your Generations Forever. Chicago,
Chicago University Press.
Karsnicki, Alex. (1996) Andres Serrano at the Kansas City
Art Institute. Http:www.kcvac.com/reviews/serrano.htm
Kristeva, Julia. (1982a) Powers of Horror. New York, Columbia
Nietzsche, Friedrich, (1982a). The Portable Nietzsche.
Ed. Walter Kaufmann. Middlesex, Penguin.
-------------------(1982b). Daybreak thoughts on the prejudices
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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 symbol.
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.
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: 9)