Sunday, April 29, 2012

Christian Micturation

"Addiction," by ENH
The best thing about indulging in a little Holy Wrath now and then (or Holy Indignation, if you're feeling lazy) is that for a while you get to lob Holiness-grenades down off your high horse, feeling marvelously superior to the less-than-Holy throngs below. It's great, because nothing makes a body feel more elevated than gazing in a downward direction at a mountain of other people's corpses (metaphorical corpses, of course... no human would ever be so vile as to go out and start some... uh - "Holy War," I guess you'd call it. That'd be just ridiculous).

Still, there's always been something that seems to me to be a little over-the-top about church-sponsored censorship of the Arts. It comes from a place of real Holier-ness, sure, but still... it just doesn't quite sit right.

You may think the reason I'm bringing this up is because the show I put together of my student's artwork got censored this weekend, but it's not. The show was/is being held in the vestibular area of a church, and they were kind enough to let us display our crazy, deranged, dark and cynical stuff all week.

They've got every right to decide what sort of decoration they want up as they conduct their services, and if they believe pieces like the one above to be unfit for Sunday-Christian eyes, that's their call. No worries, whatsoever. They give us a lot of leeway in my classroom as it is, and there's no way I wanna bite the hand that feeds me. No. Way. Whatsoever.

Instead, I want to talk about a photograph that prompted a much, much more vehement backlash, back when it was first displayed in 1987. I was seven years old at the time and living with my missionary parents in the Amazon Basin, but even there I heard about this photograph; because just about every last bit of the North American Protestant Evangelical community was up in arms over the travesty of this one, measly, photograph. It prompted everything from protests, to death threats, to vandalism, to even (in Australia) an attempt at a Supreme Court Injunction.

This picture, you may recall, was entitled "Piss Christ," and depicted a small plastic crucifix submerged in what appears to be some sort of amber-colored liquid, or perhaps polyurethane. It is, if we were to judge it by purely aesthetic and technical criteria, a beautiful and yet fairly un-remarkable image. It is highly saturated and glows with slightly hazy over-exposure, and if photographer Andres Serrano hadn't told us that the crucifix was submerged in a glass of his own urine, we would never have known.

Yet it was that admission (that, and the fact that the piece was awarded a large cash prize by an organization funded in part with taxpayer dollars) that had everyone so angry - so morally outraged, and indignantly ready for another Holy War.

I have already expressed my glowing approval of the practice of Holy Wrath as a vehicle for ego-boosting; so I want to make it clear that the line I'm thinking all these well-meaning, "Christian" art critics crossed wasn't that they threatened to kill Serrano, nor that they were furious about what they felt was a misappropriation of their tax dollars to reward something as undeserving as the creation of a photograph they didn't like. No, my friends; this is America, after all, and people have a right, here in America, to say what sort of Art they want being rewarded in their corporate name. And frankly - given what a frivolous and useless thing visual art really is - I don't blame them.

No, the problem I have with the backlash against "Piss Christ" is that I think it is misguided, and that this misguidedness arises from a fundamental mis-understanding of what Art, Christianity - and, for that matter, piss - are all about.

Let's start with piss. Granted, "piss" is kind of a gross word for something that is, yes, gross. It is possible, I think, that people might not have been quite so angry if Serrano had used the word "urine."

Nonetheless, for the purposes of this post I am going to redeem the word "piss," and use it as though I do not believe it is in any way inherently evil (because I don't). It's just a word, after all, and words are all just symbols for our concepts of things... symbols which have no more power than what we give to them.

Interestingly enough, piss isn't even actually dirty, usually. Yeah, it smells pretty strong, but it's typically sterile and mostly made of water. You can drink it (well, a few cups of it, anyway) and not die, or even get sick.* But would two teenagers have attacked the picture with a hammer at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1997 if it'd been called "Coca-Cola Christ" (Coca-Cola being, I would argue, a far more unnatural, destructive, and ecologically irresponsible excretion of the human imagination, if not ureter)?

I think not.

The reason for this is that urine is something that was in our bodies that then came out, and we have a long-standing (and biologically justifiable) aversion to such things. Dr. Richard Beck has written an excellent book entitled "Unclean" that explores this in detail, and includes an interesting meditation on the destructiveness wrought when we transfer this physiologically useful trait over into psychological realms - with the result that we end up treating out-groups of people as though they were, uh, some sort of excrement.

It's relevant, I suppose; but closer to the point is the question of why we want to treat one sterile, all-natural fluid as more repugnant than any other, which I think draws us directly into the next area of misunderstanding that leads people to get pissed off about piss, and that is theology.

I am speaking, here, of the disgusting theology of dualism, which attempts to divide the world up into two categories: things that are Holy/Sacred/Good, and things that are Unclean/Secular/Bad. This execrable misreading (I'm told) of the biblical teachings of Paul the Apostle is ubiquitous in North American Protestant Evangelical (NAPE) culture, and seems to me to willfully ignore the fact that the Bible clearly states that on the Fifth Day, God made fish and and birds that sort of piss; and then on the sixth day God made people and animals that really piss. God saw that they pissed and said that this piss, like everything else, was very good.

And yeah, sure, you might try to argue that piss was violated by The Fall of Man into Sin, and that the very existence of the word "piss" is a clear sign that people are dirty little maggots who'll make a dirty joke out of anything - but that would require ignoring the central Christian teaching that Jesus came to redeem everything, even piss... which is perhaps why St. Paul (ever the practical fellow) saw fit to point out that since Jesus had come, everything was now permissible, but perhaps not completely advisable.

Serrano's choice of piss as a resting place for a plastic crucifix (A crucifix - not Jesus, see, because Jesus is not a plastic icon) may have been inadvisable, given the cultural environment in which he chose to display it; but that doesn't mean it was necessarily an evil choice to make. There's nothing inherently less spiritual or good about a jar of piss than, say, a jar of blood (or even - I hate to admit it - Coca-Cola). Blood is something that is kind of gross, as well; but it is also something the Bible goes on and on about in a positive, adulating way that, for some reason, NAPEs have stopped seeing as the disgusting scandal it was intended to be.

So, perhaps putting a crucifix in a jar of piss could be seen not so much as a violation, but rather as a profound theological statement. 

That is not, however, what Andres Serrano meant by the piece - which brings me to my third area of NAPE misunderstanding on the issue: the very nature of art itself. I do wish some of these NAPEs could take a step back from their Bibliolatry for a moment and see the Bible for what it really is - an artistic masterpiece. Perhaps then, they'd recognize that it is not the individual bits of content that determine the value of a work of art, but rather what the work is attempting to say, and how its voice fits into the larger conversation that is capital "A" Art; the conversation that in fact encompasses all of human endeavor and expression.

Here are a few final bits of theology on the topic of art for NAPE consideration: the Bible seems to state pretty clearly right there in the beginning, in Genesis, that people bear the stamp of God's character. Now, there really isn't much you can say about God that's completely and incontrovertibly self-evident; but if you're going to allow for the existence of God at all, then you'd be hard-put to argue that God's not MASSIVELY creative... the ultimate (and primaeval) Artist. This Artist demonstrated throughout the stories of the Bible that Real Love is about getting down off your high horse and loving other people right where they are, where it's real and excremental and messy.

It seems to me a fairly easy argument to make, then, that when people make art, they're acting out a very important part of who God is, and that this divine origin of the Act of Making means that there aren't any aspects of human experience that are not essentially Holy and worthy of creative exploration, when seen in light of the Good News of Infinite Grace. Not even piss.

I could, of course, note here that Andres Serrano claims that he intended the piece to allude to "a perceived commercializing or cheapening of Christian icons in contemporary culture," but what would be the point? We all know we can't ever listen to what other people are actually claiming about themselves. If we did that, we might be forced by our consciences to actually question our preconceptions, and then it's nothing but work, work, work, all the time.**

If God hadn't meant everything to be easy and simple; and for the villains to be easily identifiable, then God obviously would not have given us the National Association of Evangelicals, the Pope, and a panoply of other forms of ecclesiastical authority to tell us the exact right way to think about everything.


So why, if this is the case, am I bothering to dredge up such an old, old controversy?

Well, because two days ago I was having a conversation with one of my more "progressive" evangelical colleagues about the role of art and artists in society, and when I made the point that art was supposed to challenge convention and get people to examine things differently, he said, "Yeah, well - sure; but there's a line... like, that "Piss Christ" thing. That's just..."

He left the elipses hanging - assuming, I suppose, that I'd see the rhetorical inevitability of it. Belligerent artist that I am, though, I went right to wikipedia and looked the whole thing back up. I saw that, yes, people are still mad about the photograph. On April 17, 2011, for example, "a print of Piss Christ was vandalized 'beyond repair' by Christian protesters while on display... at... a contemporary art museum in Avignon, France."

That conversation, and the subsequent censoring (Although, I've been informed that it's not really censorship... so, there's that) of my students' artwork just quickened my 'lil old artist's heart and I thought, dangit! Holy War is only fun when I'm the holy one who's winning. So here I am once again, all up on my high horse of a blog.

Take that, sinners!


- - -

*Don't ask me how I know this. I just do.

**Bonus Points for catching my random Princess Bride references.

NOTE: "Micturation" is just a fancy, doctory sort of word for "pissing."

5 comments:

  1. Wonderful arguments, Josh. I agree. We see faith as something sacred, connected to our emotions, inhabiting the privacy of our psyche as we bleed or heal emotionally during events over the course of life. It is as if we don't want the core of what holds us together challenged.

    Was Jesus really the sweet fix to our emotions we have made him into, whether in a papal context or evangelical ? I think he took a harsher road, brutally died on a cross, upset almost every scenario he entered in his time. His bravery leaves us speechless.

    I have often wondered why ppl are so upset about "Piss Christ"? Is it because it makes a statement that by our choices and proposed political martyrdoms and analogies we have actually reduced him to such a symbol. Maybe Serrano hit the nail on the head? I think it is worth the question asked.

    Ppl loved Mel Gibsons movie on the crucifixion, Christ brutally whipped, as I think it connected to that deeper seated holy martyrdom of the gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild, being brutalized. For us, personal connection.

    Maybe we are more Catholic than we know, when it comes to our symbols and idiosyncrasies? It raised Christ to a holy place where he paid the price for us. How can we not love him? And how dare anyone criticize what emotionally supports us?

    It comes down to a statement of what we do to the Christ in our secular lives. Suddenly, as someone makes a symbolic art statement like Serrano did( though sans actual artist statement to support it) ........it may hit somewhere close to a core of what we may have reduced Christ to be in secular society and politics. We feel our "holy cores" challenged, and freak out. How rude of art to not be nice about this:).

    But Christ did something phenomenally un-Jewish in his day by his entire philosophy on grace and pleasing the status quo.

    A current TV series that freaked the US Christians out, had been BCG. They claim it is disrespectful towards faith. Really? I don't think it does more than poke fun at the idiosyncrasies of Christian practice. And there are many.
    Let's just say that maybe we don't do that well with criticism in any form: whether a "Piss Christ" or our weaknesses and vulnerabilities exposed on public television. loll

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  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Annie. I highly recommend picking up that book by Dr. Beck... it's through a nobody publisher and therefore ridiculously overpriced - but I think you'd really appreciate his thoughts.

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  3. This was very interesting to read, as we just talked about this photograph and the subject of whether our tax money should go towards artists creating things we are inherently against in AP Language last week. When my teacher was talking about this as a possible argument/synthesis essay prompt, I was thinking about what side I would have taken. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on it, and I think it has helped me make a bit more sense of the matter.

    I caught the Princess Bride reference, btw....BONUS POINTSSS

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  4. Nicely done with the ref-catch, Holly. I think I may try to sneak a PB reference into every movie I ever write, just for fun :)

    Good luck with your paper!

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  5. DO IT. That would be awesome. When you're a famous screenwriter, you could have a challenge of catching all the references...

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