Rethinking Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’

Andreas Serrano - Piss Christ [1987]ABC’s Encounter Program recently re-ran a  conversation with David Freedman (Rabbi, Sydney), Robin Jensen (Professor of the History of Christian Worship and Art, Vanderbilt University, Nashville), Rod Pattenden (Director, Blake Prize for Religious Art), Steven Liew (Plastic surgeon, Sydney), Maureen O’Sullivan (Plastic surgery patient), and Christine Piff (Founder and CEO, Let’s Face It) on the topic of the human face. The conversations reflected on artistic representations of God, and modern cosmetic surgery and its relationship with experiences of facial disfigurement. It was a fascinating program (and it can be downloaded here). One the reflections that struck me was that of Rod Pattenden on Andreas Serrano’s much-debated photograph ‘Piss Christ’. I appreciated being invited (even compelled) to revisit this piece, and, in so doing, rethink and revisit some earlier reflections, questions and conclusions I drew from it both as a piece of art and as a christological statement. Here’s what Pattenden had to say:

This image is an image of a familiar crucifixion. Jesus is spread out upon a cross, probably it’s a little hard to see because we’re seeing it through an orange or red glowing light, with what appears to be bubbles. It looks like the crucifixion has been immersed in this kind of gaseous, underwater, soft orange light. So at first instance, it looks like a very pious image, something very familiar to us, but in a place which seems unfamiliar.

It’s only when we are told that the title is Piss Christ, that we immediately recoil, and as we understand the artist has made a photograph of a traditional plastic crucifix which he’s purchased in a gift store, and placed it in a large – presumably glass – container and filled it with urine, and photographed it. And so you have what seems like a moment of blasphemy, of an offence, of an artist transgressing what is familiar and pious and precious to a believing person, into a situation that seems horrendously offensive.

One of the issues we face as contemporary human beings, is that we live in the age of AIDS, and other diseases which are passed on by human body fluids, and so here is a crucifix placed in body fluids. So the artist – who describes himself as a faithful Catholic, and grew up in a family that was very pious – is actually making a theological connection in this work, about the very humanity of Jesus, and blood, and death, and what it is to suffer.

And what I like about it is that it reminds me that as a religious person I become very familiar with my symbols; I anaesthetise them, I dust them, I make them into gold and precious ornaments, and they become something safe on my shelf. And he reminds me that Jesus actually died and bled and suffered, and that this is offensive and grotesque and difficult. And that that’s a part of what it is to be human. So in the very offence that arises for particularly people of faith, in Serano’s images I think, is an opportunity to revisit the fundamental shock of the crucifixion, and the meaning of Jesus’ death and life.

Andrew Hudgins, in his (pungent and overstated) poem, Andres Serrano, 1987, echoes Pattenden’s claim that it’s in the naming of this photograph that we ‘recoil’, but that it’s not only in the naming:

If we did not know it was cow’s blood and urine,
if we did not know that Serrano had for weeks
hoarded his urine in a plastic vat,
if we did not know the cross was gimcrack plastic,
we would assume it was too beautiful.
We would assume it was the resurrection,
glory, Christ transformed to light by light
because the blood and urine burn like a halo,
and light, as always, light makes it beautiful.

We are born between the urine and the feces,
Augustine says, and so was Christ, if there was a Christ,
skidding into this world as we do
on a tide of blood and urine. Blood, feces, urine—
what the fallen world is made of, and what we make.
He peed, ejaculated, shat, wept, bled—
bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross and the blood and urine smeared his legs
and he ascended bodily unto heaven,
and on the third day he rose into glory, which
is what we see here, the Piss Christ in glowing blood:
the whole irreducible point of the faith,
God thrown in human waste, submerged and shining.

We have grown used to beauty without horror.

We have grown used to useless beauty.

22 thoughts on “Rethinking Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’

  1. Amen. When I was first introduced to Piss Christ, I had idea about the story or Christians’ broad outrage — I thought it was a universally acknowledged and beloved piece of Christian art! These thoughts, and that exquisite poem, are right on the mark.

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  2. There’s an excellent discussion of Serrano’s art in “A Trickster Makes This World” by Lewis Hyde. A fascinating book in its own right.

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  3. I’m usually very open to art that challenges our habitual reactions to familiar objects or ideas, but in this case I’m not sure. There is a fine line between, on the one hand, a healthy reminder that Christ suffered, that he was fully human, and, on the other hand, a postmodern obsessive-compulsion to revel in the shocking on the tautological basis that it is…shocking.Coprophilia, for example, is shocking and a reminder of how odd we are as humans with our bodily excretions and our often warped desires, but quite whether we’d want to celebrate that is another question.

    I find this photo more useful as a point of discussion for where we are ideologically and aesthetically, rather than Christologically. As for the poem, it’s terrible. It’s mundane prose chopped up into lines that function under the façade of poetry.

    Stimulating post, though!

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  4. I’m still not sure about Piss Christ, after seeing it a while ago, which is perhaps the best way to be towards art.

    Daniel Sidell, author of God in the Gallery, had some interesting things to say about Serrano in his book. At least, I think it was in his book, but it may have been an article somewhere else.

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  5. 1) Great and thought-provoking post, which has helped me see this work in a new light.

    2) Still, I wonder why post-modern artists whose work is so self-consciously shocking are then surprised when people are shocked.

    3) Augustine never said “we are born between the urine and the feces” or anything like it. It was Voltaire.

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  6. I wrote a lengthy paper saying precisely this a while back, even down to the use of the same poem. Nice to see someone else making the same point.

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  7. yo, I am glad I read everything in this article. Obviously there are some “extreme” points being stated… I do not think the same as you and could not imagine writing so much about Jesus in one article focusing on human feces and fail to give any praise or glory to your savior, it is all more than any human being or angel could comprehend. I pray that your life will continue to be blessed and touched deeply by the Holy Spirit of God who is Love and Spirit who is in all of our lives if we let Jesus into our hearts and follow the example set. God Bless you, you are a very creative and smart and have so much to offer everyone around you, especially kids. thanks for reading, peace.

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  8. I was absolutely horrified when i first read how it was taken but after reading the poem i think i understand

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  9. Phil, I appreciated your post very much. It reminded me of a paper I heard Trevor Hart give some years ago. It was titled, ‘Ugly as Sin? Beauty, Holiness and the Crucified’ in which he explored the notion of beauty as contradiction. That beauty is not chaotic, and that when it interrupts it takes us beyond its immediate reality. That is, it refuses to be restrained by any creaturely reality. Beauty also creates a frustration in us as it fades and leaves us with a longing not for the beauty itself but for that to which the beauty points us. Beauty points to promise. Hart went on to recall that beauty does not mirror God but rather the true nature of creation as it shall be in its entirety, as we shall be, humanity glorified. Thus, beauty is an experience of the foretaste of final redemption and resurrection rather than of God himself. It is experience in this world as part of God’s promised future. Hart bore witness to the fact that the cross – that place where holiness is mixed up with the world’s sin and ugliness – is principally an act of worship (a very Forsythian way of seeing things!). And he noted that our encounter with beauty is always a Holy Saturday affair – both of the Friday before and of the final word of the Sunday.

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  10. Hi Jason,

    those are really helpful thoughts, so thanks for sharing them! It’s nice to know I’m in the company of men like Trevor Hart. I particularly identified with his comment on the frustration that beauty evokes – I’ve long experienced beauty as something painful. But when I tell others about this, however, they can never identify with me … .

    I’m still left with my questions: why is the cross the way in which God redeems the structure of reality itself? Is there even an answer to this? As far as I know, the early church thought of it in terms of the “harrowing of Hell” and then Christ’s priestly presentation of our flesh to God. But those are images I struggle to comprehend (and don’t quite believe so literally .. ). For someone deeply indebted to Reformed theology, not having an answer to this question is disconcerting!

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  11. You can justify practically anything. Take any random object and immerse it in any random excretion and you can write a poem about it and claim it was deep and meaningful. You haven’t shown that Piss Christ was meaningful or beautiful at all, only that you can rationalize it with poetry. Claiming that Piss Christ is anything other than garbage art is just bullocks.

    So try it for yourself. Take an ancient Roman coin and immerse it in cow phlegm. Photograph it with soft lenses in the sunlight so that you can’t tell it’s bovine spit. Then write a poem about how the Romans were close to the Earth and agriculture and laud them for being more in touch with their primitize selves than us. Bingo! You’ve got Piss Christ.

    If your first reaction is that the concept sucks, then the concept probably sucks.

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  12. I think it’s a beautiful photograph and a beautiful poem.

    It might be “garbage art”- I’m not sure what that means, as art and beauty are both highly subjective- but so, in that sense, was the person of Christ, the image of God, who died surrounded by garbage.

    It’s the same point, I suppose, that Mr. Hudgins was making with his poem, but I don’t think it can be stated too much. The Church has sanitized the cross and made what was a scandal for the early Christians into a consumer icon and brand name symbol; we’ve taken a weapon of torture that should horrify us and turned it into a meaningless trinket.

    Piss Christ should shock us and disgust us, but in doing so, it reminds us of how the concept of the crucified Messiah would have shocked and disgusted those who first heard the early followers of Jesus preach.

    Or maybe it’s not. Who cares? Even if Serrano had no interest in the theological implications of his work and meant only to shock, it still provokes in us those same reactions and it should still make us think.

    Or we can sit back and smugly condemn the work and talk about how dumb it is and never learn anything new.

    Take your pick.

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  13. K T Cat :
    I just threw you a link to this post. You’ll be happy to know that Andres Serrano has a new exhibit up. It’s called “Shit.” I’m sure there’s a poem to be written there, too.

    That’s great. What’s wrong with that? Seriously. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but have you taken a look at his photographs and seen what exactly he has to offer? Some of his photos of “shit” are beautiful- especially if you never knew it was, in fact, fecal matter being photographed. What does that say about the art of photography and about how we view the products of very normal bodily processes? Why do we view it that way?

    Look, you don’t have to like the art, but don’t dismiss it unless you’ve seen it and talked about it with other people.

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  14. Now many European christians know how many millions of muslims felt when crude drawings of Mohammed were posted on the internet.

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  15. Pingback: Yoga Modern » No Yoga Without Horror?

  16. “Look, you don’t have to like the art, but don’t dismiss it unless you’ve seen it and talked about it with other people.”

    Will do. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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  17. whoa…i thought this was offensive at first when i learnt the crucifix was submerged in urine…but i see now,what a pecular man serrano must have been…nd what weird ways he expressed himself….

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