Andres – “I don’t think my work is shocking” – Serrano (1950) will probably be forever affiliated with his Piss Christ. The New Yorker made the photograph in 1987 capturing a small crucifix submerged in his own urine. Even though it was visually not clear that it, in fact, was urine, it could have been a golden or amber depiction of a crucifix. However, the title Immersion (Piss Christ) was pretty unequivocal. When it first was exhibited in New York, it was not necessarily identified as a controversy. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that most conservatives and Christian people weren’t very happy about it. It was shown at the Virginia Museum of Art in Richmond with support from the National Endowment for the Arts. This started a chain reaction. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association* launched a campaign against government funding for arts. It also faced criticism from the Senate. Republican Senators Jesse Helms and Al D’amato began to attack the whole organisation of the NEA. Twenty-five members of the Senate co-signed a letter written by Republican Senator D’Amato to Hugh Southern, former chairman of the NEA, asking if the organisation would change its way of operating. Serrano received death threats and lost the grant.
During a retrospective almost 10 years later, in 1997 in the National Gallery of Victoria the then Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell, sought an injunction from the Supreme Court of Victoria to restrain the National Gallery of Victoria from exhibiting Piss Christ, which was – luckily – not granted. During the exhibition, one of the gallery patrons tried to remove the work. Also, two teenagers couldn’t resist the urge to attack the work with a hammer. Were these teenagers so offended by the photograph, they risked getting a criminal record?
Anyway, the whole history of the artist makes it so insanely amusing that republican POTUS Donald Trump has allowed Serrano to make a portrait of him. The picture, which he took in 2004, is now on view at Frieze Art Fair in New York at Galerie Nathalie Obadia. Like it isn’t incompatible enough, it is placed next to a photograph of a Mexican Migrant Worker. Everyone can decide for themselves on how many levels this is conflicting.
*according to Wikipedia the AFA is a non-profit organisation based in the United States that promotes fundamentalist Christian values. It opposes same-sex marriage, pornography, and abortion.
Frieze Art Fair MAIN, BOOTH C15 Galerie Nathalie Obadia
For more information about the Piss Christ-controversy and art censorship in the U.S.A. see the documentary Damned in the U.S.A. (1992).