Andres Serrano. Cibachrome print, 1987.
We have a problem with art. By “we,” I mean Christ-followers living in Korea in 2018, called to faithfulness in the world. If you are not a Christian, you are welcome to read along. But in this particular column, I’m not writing for you. I’m talking to my tribe: those who try, like me, to obey Christ. Many of us have not yet figured out how to be patient and wise when we see offensive images like this one.
Piss Christ is a photograph of a crucifix submerged in the urine of the photographer, Andres Serrano. Since its first public display, it has created and sustained controversy. Thirty years on, it still has a shocking edge. There sits Jesus, the Redeemer of the whole world. Christ my Saviour, drowning in Serrano’s piss. Should I look at it? Should I look away? Should I be angry? Should I have pity on the artist? Should I be concerned for his soul?
Piss Christ has been exhibited in cultural centers all over the world. Los Angeles, Groningen, New York, Melbourne. It was vandalized in Avignon. In Washington DC, an American politician persuaded his colleagues to eliminate funding for the arts by tearing up a photograph of Piss Christ on the floor of the US Senate. (He succeeded, and the US Senate drastically cut funding for the arts that year). A Roman Catholic bishop tried to get the Supreme Court of Australia to ban its exhibition. Some twenty-five years after its creation, some people petitioned US president Barack Obama to denounce Piss Christ as blasphemy. Given such precedent, being offended by Piss Christ does not make you weird or culturally backward. In many circles, to be offended marks you as entirely normal.
As a professor, however, I’m not inclined toward normalcy. I’m much more motivated by curiosity. As a Christian, I’m called to actively doubt normalcy (Romans 12:2), and practice obedience seeking understanding (Philippians 2:11). It’s one thing to proclaim “obedience seeking understanding” when we encounter some difficult artwork by Yayoi Kusama, or Camille Henrot, or the colorful, fantastical world of a music video such as “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” by BTS. Yet it seems like another animal entirely when facing something as apparently blasphemous as Piss Christ.
I think we are tempted to three basic reactions, as Christ followers. The first reaction is truculence. We can sense danger in cultural artifacts which blaspheme Christ or His creation. Speaking out against it feels like a faithful response, but we quickly lose credibility among non-believers. The second reaction is to seek purity. Given the apparent decadence and ugliness of the culture, and our inability to fix it or change it, some of us are tempted to retreat into our own worlds, create alternate art, or pay attention only to “Christian” art (or something that at least doesn’t offend our tribe). The third reaction is to try to fit in. If truculence doesn’t work, and if purity makes us irrelevant, some of us think that the better pathway is to downplay our offense, and try to gain credibility in the eyes of those who don’t share our values.
All three of those reactions represent a failure of Christian faithfulness. The first leads to anger. The second leads to self-righteousness. The third leads to apostasy. We are left to wonder what a robust, Christ-centered response might be. You’ve been patiently reading, waiting for an answer, and here I will disappoint you: I do not know.
But here’s what I do know. Christ’s sacrifice has reversed the ancient pagan moralities. God’s anger has been satisfied, and Christ has paid the ultimate price. Piss Christ and Andres Serrano himself are under the new logic of redemption: God has promised to restore all things to himself in the new heaven and the new earth. I don’t know what redemption of Piss Christ looks like, but I know that this too, belongs to God.
Here’s one more thing that I know: even those who do not know Christ recognize humility when they see it. Christians are to mourn anything which falls short of the glory of God, beginning with our own behavior. Perhaps we should stand before Piss Christ and confess that we too are guilty of blasphemy—that we have also defaced Christ’s image in the world through our own weakness and deliberate sins. One Roman Catholic nun was asked by an American journalist what she thought of Piss Christ, and she said very simply that “this is what we are doing to Christ." To whom should I point a finger when I myself, except for the grace of God, would gladly piss on Christ’s image?