It wouldn’t be Holy Week without a good, old fashioned religious art controversy. This year’s is quite troubling, indeed. According to the Guardian, on Sunday, a group of “French Catholic fundamentalists” attacked Andres Serrano’s controversial work, “Piss Christ,” in the city of Avignon as part of an “anti-blasphemy” campaign. The piece is a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s own urine.
The piece had been the subject of controversy for decades, and was recently a point of reference during the controversy over the censoring by the Smithsonian of a work by artist David Wojnarowicz that some Christian activists found offensive as well.
Over the years, perhaps the most unlikely defender of Serrano’s work has been British art scholar and television personality (and Catholic nun) Sister Wendy Beckett, who spoke to Bill Moyers about “Piss Christ” some time ago. During the wide-ranging interview, which is worth watching in full, Moyers brings up Serrano’s piece, asking the religious woman if she found it offensive. This is her response:
I thought he was saying, in a rather simplistic, magazine-y type of way, that this is what we are doing to Christ, we are not treating him with reverence. His great sacrifice is not used. We live very vulgar lives. We put Christ in a bottle of urine – in practice. It was a very admonitory work. Not a great work; one wouldn’t want to go on looking at it once one had already seen it once. But I think to call it blasphemous is really rather begging the question: it could be, or it could not be. It is what you make of it, and I could make something that made me feel a deep desire to reverence the death of Christ more by this suggestion that this is what, in practice, the world is doing.
Sister Wendy, while not defending the work as a very good piece of art, does defend “Piss Christ” as a work of art. In fact, she penetrates to the heart of an irony implicit in Serrano’s piece: that while it appears on the surface to make a mockery of religion, it is, in fact, a critique of the religious mockery – not surface blasphemy, but a lived blasphemy. In other words, this is in an instance in which a lack of understanding of the work of art provokes those who would otherwise profess to be allied with the piece’s essential message to nonetheless seek its destruction.