In 1987, the New York artist Andres Serrano ignited a national and religious controversy when he stuck a plastic crucifix into a glass of his own urine, photographed it, and entitled it Immersion (Piss Christ). Serrano emphasized that he was making a statement about the commercialization and cheapening of religious icons in contemporary culture. Many did not (as you may imagine) understand the artwork in this way. In 1989, Piss Christ was the reason for an ultra-heated debate in the US about the use of public funds for art.
During that debate, Republican Senator Jesse Helms told the Senate that Serrano was
“not an artist. He’s a jerk”
Others apparently agreed with the Senator, as Piss Christ was vandalized in Australia, while a 2007 Serrano show in Sweden was ransacked by neo-Nazis.
Earlier this week, Piss Christ has again been vandalized, this time by French Catholic fundamentalists in the southern city of Avignon as part of an “anti-blasphemy” campaign. For the past for months, the artwork has been shown as part of an exhibition, I Believe in Miracles, in the gallery of prominent art dealer Yvon Lambert. But for the past two weeks, Christian protesters have launched a growing campaign. On Saturday, 1,000 of them — including a regional councillor for the extreme-right Front National — marched through Avignon to the gallery. Afterwards, plexiglass was installed in front of the artwork and two gallery guards assigned to watch it.
This video shows Piss Christ in the gallery in Avignon before it was vandalized.
Last Sunday—Palm Sunday—the Guardian reports this attack on the artwork:
…on Palm Sunday morning, four people in sunglasses aged between 18 and 25 entered the exhibition just after it opened at 11am. One took a hammer out of his sock and threatened the guards with it. A guard grabbed another man around the waist but within seconds the group managed to take a hammer to the plexiglass screen and slash the photograph with another sharp object, thought to be a screwdriver or ice-pick. They also smashed another work, which showed the hands of a meditating nun.
The gallery director, Eric Mézil, said it would reopen with the destroyed works on show “so people can see what barbarians can do”. He said there had been a kind of “inquisition” against the art work.
In a statement, he said the movement against Piss Christ had started at the time of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party’s controversial debate on religion and secularism in France. At a record low in the polls before next year’s presidential election, Sarkozy has been accused of using anti-Muslim and extreme-right rhetoric to appeal to voters and counter the rise of the Front National.
The violent damage done to Piss Christ has, says Guardian, “plunged secular France into soul-searching about Christian fundamentalism and Nicolas Sarkozy’s use of religious populism in his bid for re-election next year.”
You can see a photo of the vandalized photograph of Piss Christ via the French newspaper Le Monde.
The director of the gallery collection, Eric Mézil, reports that the gallery staff has received death threats. The exhibit reopened yesterday under heightened security, including metal detectors, searches of visitors’ bags, and two policemen making regular rounds in the vicinity of the gallery.
I rather think the damaged Piss Christ makes a potentially more powerful statement, especially the excessive use of violence against art.