Piss Christ | Sanitising Death and Torture

Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ is back in the news again after Christian fundamentalists took a hammer to a print of it in a gallery in France.

If you’ve never seen the photograph ‘up close’ then I’d highly recommend it. It’s far more beautiful than the title suggests, and a subtle piece of trickster-work. It is thus far more orthodox than than the Christian Right have given Serrano credit for. He is not trying to debase God or Christ, but comment on the trivialisation and commodification of the image of Christ – as exemplified in the cheap plastic crucifix.

We have sanitised the crucifixion. One can be quite sure that any Good Friday service you attend this week will not include much blood, and certainly no urine, faeces, sweat, broken bones at stomach-churning angles, ear-splitting screams, whipping, torture, skin piercing or grotesque physical violence.

We weep for the tragedy of Jesus’ death, but are far removed from the pain, anguish and down-right sadistic punishment that went on that day – and every day. Crucifixion was horrible, and common, and when Jesus suffered it none of his followers expected that anything good might follow.

Serrano is working within tradition by forcing us to look again at what has become over-familiar. His filter of blood and urine literally forces us to see afresh. I wrote about the piece and it’s place more in tricksterism more full in The Complex Christ (UK) / Signs of Emergence (US), and quote Serrano there as saying:

Complex and unresolved feelings about my own Catholic upbringing inform this work which helps me to redefine and personalise my relationship with God. For me, art is a moral and spiritual obligation that cuts across all manner of pretence and speaks directly to the soul. Although I am no longer a member of the Catholic Church, I consider myself a Christian and I practice my faith through my work.

Clearly, the Christian Right do not like the introduction of dirt into their sanitised religion. Why? Because it is awkward. Shit always forces us to ask difficult psychological questions, face our fears and doubts, and reassess our classifications of what is ‘in’ or ‘out.’

And there can be no better message as we come to Easter again than that: this is a God who came into a bloody and dirty world, and refused to shy away from our shit.

But there are deeper questions too. What are those who come with hammers to smash a work of art hoping to achieve? Do they believe that God is somehow trapped within the photograph, and needs to be released? Are they hoping that their violence will somehow cause other artists to think twice before attempting similar representations? Or do they want to spoil it so that no one else will be able to see the image? What sort of God do they think they are defending who cannot stand what Serrano has done? Not one that I’m interested in following, that’s for sure.


3 responses to “Piss Christ | Sanitising Death and Torture”

  1. Hi Kester,

    You’ve got a good point – we have sanitised the crucifixion, but also we don’t kill our own food any more… or die of many diseases that we used to, or have to defend our homes with a sword very often, or lose our wives in childbirth 50% of the time. ‘Civilization’ has removed us from such tooth and claw extremities to the point that it is almost impossible to relate to a crucifixion without it being something utterly horrific.

    I can hear my doctor sister-in-law telling me how much better we have it now! But still I feel we’ve lost something if we have to slap our own faces to get us to appreciate what Jesus went through.

    Got to say, although i can appreciate the sense of art about this piece, i don’t think i could have pissed in a glass that held a crucifix!



  2. Martin Poole

    Don’t they see the irony of attacking Christ with a hammer at this time of year?! It brings Good Friday alive.

  3. Kay Petterson

    Holy Week, if you read 24 Hours That Changed the World by Adam Hamilton, is a real eye-opener. It’s a wonderful, REAL book that reads as if we were really there. There is also a video. There is no urine, feces, but there is plenty of sweat, dirt, screaming, broken bones, torture, flogging – the worst of all humiliation and inhumanity to our Savior. It is hard to imagine that all those horrible things, and don’t forget betrayal and denial, and dinner, could happen in 24 hours. My church is
    educating us all on what really happened, with no downplaying of anything, and I can’t describe the feelings I had while reading this book, teaching a class on it, and hearing sermons about what “really” happened. On Good Friday we will have a service, led by the youth, that will not downplay what happened and the different reasons why.