An image defiled by censorship

Photograph: Reaction to a picture of the crucifix immersed in urine raises larger questions.

Fine arts

November 20, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Right about now, I'd hate to be the person who recently bought up the Baltimore Museum of Art's entire supply of postcards depicting Andres Serrano's notorious Piss Christ.

Earlier this month, after a local talk-show host denounced the artist for defiling a sacred image - and the BMA for selling it - a listener went to the museum gift shop and purchased the last 13 Serrano postcards in stock to prevent anyone else from being offended by the controversial photograph.

You could call that a form of private censorship, since the person who bought the images did so for the sole purpose of precluding anyone else from seeing them. But it raises a knotty problem for whoever took them off the market: Now what? Destroy them? Keep them? Return them to the publisher?

The question is more troublesome than it might appear at first glance.

If the anonymous censor truly believes that sacred images have been defiled, he or she could destroy them or throw them away, but wouldn't that be a further defilement of the image?

Conversely, one could decide it's OK to destroy Serrano's postcards because they merely are objectionable pictures. But in that case, what's all the fuss about? If they are so unimportant they can be discarded or destroyed at will, why go to so much bother to prevent others from looking at them?

Eventually the BMA will reorder its Serrano postcards, and people who find them offensive will have to decide whether or not to buy them all again before anyone else can see them. That seems self-defeating in the long run.

Let it be said at the outset that it's understandable that many Catholics are deeply disturbed by Serrano's photograph, which depicts a small crucifix immersed in a reddish-yellow fluid said to be the artist's own urine.

The cross and Jesus' crucifixion are central images in the Christian faith, and specifically for the Catholic church. They not only represent crucial events in the life of Jesus related in the Bible, but are sacred icons in their own right, objects of veneration that help guide believers toward salvation.

That's why some critics have charged that Serrano's image is a sacrilege, an instance of the artist literally urinating on their religion. And it's this sense of the picture's meaning that animated the "culture wars" of the 1980s and '90s, which pitted conservative groups against what they viewed as the liberal-controlled art establishment.

The virulence of that controversy virtually drowned out other, competing interpretations of Serrano's image. Yet, in fact, much of Serrano's earlier work consists of images of blood, urine and milk, which the artist used as metaphors for the human body. Serrano photographed these primal fluids as much for their brilliant hues as for the associations they evoke. And it's telling that Piss Christ probably is the only photograph Serrano ever made that large numbers of people would recognize.

In Piss Christ, the question of defilement also cuts both ways. In effect, the artist challenges us to consider whether his image, however disturbing, might be justified because it points to a deeper truth - that Christ himself was defiled like his image, that his body and blood were violated by the world's cruelty and barbarism, and that his suffering took a human form despite his divine nature.

This, to me, is the essential message of the Christian faith, and Serrano's image is shocking precisely because it represents Christ's ordeal in such human terms - blood, urine and sweat. Viewing the tortured figure on the cross through the layers of color reflected by these fluids, one almost has the sense of experiencing the crucifixion from inside Christ's own body, through his own flesh and blood.

Finally, I'm struck by the fact that, despite the ignominious circumstances of his death, Christ triumphs in the end, even in Serrano's photograph. The picture shows a luminous Jesus in a light-filled space. The world may be a cesspool, but it cannot defile the meaning of his life or his message, which has permeated every corner of the globe. Christ's dual nature as both god and a man shines through.

This is only one way of looking at Serrano's image, but it suggests that works of art speak on many levels. I am not suggesting that people who are offended by the photograph are misguided. There are no easy answers to the issues raised by this work, because there probably never can be universal agreement on what it means, and because it reflects a serious, continuing debate in this country about who controls artistic images and their meanings.

In such cases, however, it does seem to me that an attitude of tolerance toward different viewpoints and interpretations is warranted. That's why the person who took the Serrano postcards out of circulation recently should, if he or she is sincere, feel a real dilemma about what to do with them.

Maybe the best solution would be for him or her to simply return them to the museum. That way, the person wouldn't have to further defile a sacred image he or she already feels has been defiled, and people with different views could make up their own minds about the artist's work.

That outcome might not satisfy everyone - but it may be the best we can do in these troubled times.

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