Piss Christ, Revisited

The culture wars are back. And they seem to have a corporate sponsor that sells fried chicken sandwiches. With the Presidential election looming the political pundits are active, as are the Reformed and evangelical bloggers, girding themselves for battle, urging their minions not to retreat and fight for traditional middle American values in the face of those liberals on the coasts.

The absurdity of this situation, in which the starting point for a discussion of cultural engagement is a Chick-fil-A drive-through, makes me yearn for the good old days of the 1990s when art was believed (rightly) to threaten the stability of American culture and its traditional values, and defunding the National Endowment of the Arts in order to promote a pro-American art occupied the efforts of our leading political conservatives. The icon of the culture wars in the 1990s was Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ.

Serrano received about $10,000 from the NEA in the late 1980s to help defray a fraction of the costs to make two series of photographs, of which Piss Christ was one work in one of the two series, which used kitchy Christian and Classical statuettes photographed through plexi-glas containers filled with urine, supposedly the artist’s own.

Serrano’s work has been characterized by the creation of stunningly beautiful images from the most repugnant and tabooed subjects, such as cadavers, mutilated animals, excrement, and even high ranking members of the Ku Klux Klan. From the beginning, politicians and commentators bore false witness against Piss Christ, using words and phrases like “a Crucifix submerged in a jar of urine” and other reductive phrases to give the impression that the work was simply a juvenile gesture of desecration.  The tension that the work produces comes not from the work alone but from the title, which clues the viewer into the source of its overwhelming luminosity, generating an unexpected but undeniable space where beauty and ugliness, power and weakness, glory and humiliation embrace.

But that space was destroyed by the culture wars. The rough and reductionist discourse on both the Left and Right had an effect on Serrano himself. In early interviews, Serrano talked about the challenges growing up gay within the context of the Roman Catholic Church and spoke sensitively and insightfully of the ambivalence of Piss Christ, revealing that it was a work that came from his own conflicted emotions and complex experiences. Yet as the culture warriors on both the Left and Right used this image, Serrano fell increasingly in line with the radical (and adolescent) liberal art world response, and he became much less interested in maintaining that evocatively ambivalent space opened up by that photograph itself. Serrano became more anti-religious, the work becoming more provocative and antagonistic than it had appeared to him years earlier. And he went on the lecture circuit, harping against the Christian Right on college campuses. Deprived of the space his work created by the culture war, Serrano became the agitator, the anti-religious provocateur.



Piss Christ continues, decades later, to be the subject of iconoclastic violence, bred from its use and abuse as an icon of the culture wars. In April 2011, in Avignon, France, four young men attacked it.  The space that Piss Christ generated, which exceeded even the scope of Serrano’s conflicted and ambivalent intensions, was generated by grace. But that space is long gone, a victim of the culture wars.

Grace is God’s final word to humanity in desperate need of being forgiven. Grace is what is preached in Word and Sacrament. It is grace that characterizes the witness of the Church to the nations. A primary responsibility of the cultural theologian is to discern the operation of grace in the world, an operation of an alien presence that is in the process of overturning the regime of law, of tit-for-tat, karma, and quid pro quo. And it is often found in art, literature, and music—precisely those endeavors that can undermine the world’s legal framework of justification, that saturates our lives and shapes our institutions.

A cultural theologian should be characterized, following Luther, as a Theologian of the Cross. It is not in triumph, success, strength, beauty, and power, which seduce the Theologian of Glory, that we find Christ in this world, but in failure, taboo, cultural excrement, marginalization, and humiliation.

Iconoclasm, the destruction of images, is a testimony to their power. But the power of Piss Christ is in the space it creates where grace operates, even beyond the intentions of the artist and those who would use the work as a weapon in the culture war. The chief victim in the culture wars is grace. Neither side could tolerate its presence in Piss Christ, that it could bear witness to something even Serrano, his defenders, and opponents, were unable to recognize fully—the inescapable beauty of the cross, borne from hatred, ugliness, and violence, a beauty that comes out of ugliness and an ugliness that never lets the viewer deny the beauty.

Grace rarely makes the news, strengthens a political platform, or wins an argument. In the culture wars, whether in the art gallery or the  fast food drive-through, it is grace that is the victim. But it is grace that is God’s last word, the Word in Christ who forgives and who is in the process of making all things new, not by law but by grace. And if we listen, we just might be able to see it at work in the world.

Sola gratia

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    • http://jbockelman.com James Bockelman

      One could argue that “Piss Christ” is not the controversial work it is without the decision of the artist to title the work as he did. On its own, the image is certainly not offensive. I have shown “Piss Christ” to many students over the years. And, when I do show them, I do so without reference to its context and contentious history. When asked to respond to the photograph, students claim the image to be beautiful and mysterious, even meditative. It is only after they learn of the title and its historical context that the piece becomes contested.

      My point is that we may not understand what we are looking at by simply looking at the photograph. I believe that any analysis of this particular work must take into account the role of the title, a role that not only identifies the subject, a crucifix of Christ, but also introduces a somewhat vulgar word, piss. How do we understand this title? What response do we have when we see or hear these two words, piss and Christ, used together in the same phrase?

      As I think about the photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine, I think the title is almost as beautiful a decision as the image by which we are confronted. Serrano chose just two words, piss and Christ. But these two words are seldom seen together or thought about within the same setting. With many derogatory associations, piss is stronger then either the common word pee or the more appropriate word, urine. In fact, piss seems more apt to fit within the writings of Georges Bataille and his interest in those materials society generally considers taboo, debased, or repugnant. Piss is also a verb as in the act of peeing. And perhaps it is the mental picture of a human being urinating that people find disgusting. But ironically enough, urine is a sterile liquid, purified through the kidneys. A quick look at wikipedia.com underscores the complexity of this very human, daily occurrence. So that if we see pissing as a biological necessity, then this entire act of removing waste material from the body is both practical for health and a wonderful process in its own right.

      The other word Serrano chose is equally loaded and complex. Within religious circles, when the word Christ is used as an off–color, swear word, we generally understand it to be taking the Lord’s name in vain. On the other hand, Christ is also associated with important positions such as prophet, teacher, and the second person of the Trinity within the faiths of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

      What I am trying to underscore is that these two words, piss and Christ, already carry within them an assortment of preconceived assumptions, functions, and biases. The signification of these two words is so much apart of our experience — they are routine but loaded — that often we think little of their meaning. But, when they are placed together side by side, they are volatile. It is in this subtle way that Andre Serrano’s title is present, acting with his image in a parallel manner. In this particular instance of genius, by naming his work, “Piss Christ”, Serrano’s title both implies what the photograph documents AND enacts a series of questions that are at once aesthetic, moral, and spiritual. Without the title, I do not think most people would give the image a second look.

  • http://www.tjstoner.com Timothy J. Stoner

    I read your analysis of Serrano with great interest and profit. This followed on the heels of your critique of Kinkade—Dark Light. My observation is this: We all have a theological, or a-theological bias. Yours, admittedly, is toward the Theology of the Cross and against (or away from) a Theology of Glory. I think the contrast or contradiction overdrawn. Though we are adrift in a fallen, broken wasteland and live out our lives and create our art in a disordered cosmos, it is one in process of being redeemed. And what is more, is on an irresistible trajectory toward eventual glorification—so we are promised.

    In particular, I think that your bias also causes you to overstate your case when you say that it is “not in triumph, success, strength, beauty, and power” that we “find Christ in this world, but in failure, taboo, cultural excrement, marginalization, and humiliation.” Christ is hidden in the powerlessness of the poor and the scandal of the Eucharist, absolutely true, but He can lie hidden in my wife’s beautiful smile as well as the sunset over Lake Michigan and our child’s indecipherable scrawls. He does, after all, strike us in the most unexpected moments with those shafts of glory that literally take our breath away, and remind us “not here but there”.

    Kinkade’s technical merits and theological demerits aside, is there not an honest (at least), childlike (perhaps), simple (undoubtedly) attempt to use the fading, hazy glow to point one toward that future day in the new City or that long-gone day in the Garden? Is there not grace there? Could that not “create a space” for the unschooled, the untrained, the gullible and poor in spirit, the very ones Christ identified Himself with? Might it not then serve as an icon for the aesthetically challenged?

    A theology of the cross is the essential corrective and counter-weight to the materialistic excesses of a giddy triumphalism. However, lifting up the Cross does not require us to ignore the beauty in a fallible attempt (at least) to encourage us to look up and away to what creation once was, and may very well look like when all is made new–if we are willing to replace Christ’s promise of “mansions” with “cottages.”

    It seems that a theology of the cross would require us to identify with, rather than pillory the weakness of, my brother as he flounders to sing his little song, or offer his little painting. Grace, I agree, does not mean I refuse to offer a loving critique, but it must issue out of a heart that has first been broken by its own gracelessness. Correction can be grace if it concedes that its own demerits are probably worse than those being addressed, though perhaps less obvious since they may lie hidden under a more cultured and articulate lexicography. The first prayer of the one issuing as it is of the one receiving a healthful rebuke is “Jesus Christ Son of God be merciful to me a sinner” or “grace me lest I die!”