Wednesday, December 28, 2005

A bit of a rant here. (update, broken links fixed or deleted)

The “Piss Christ” gets brought up on a regular basis in discussions on culture. The image has become something of an icon for many conservatives and Christians, representing the condescension, elitism, and secular-religious bigotry of the itelligencia. I find it tiring.

Has anyone actually thought through the image for itself?

My contention is that “Piss Christ” is the best representation of the crucifixion in all of Western Art.

One of the things I have come to realize as an artist is that Message in art is very fluid, subject to historic revision, and often meaningless. It seems that few artists whose avowed purpose is to send a message can do it well. Most are so ham handed as to be ridiculous and quickly boring. The simplest reason that Message in art is subject to so many vaguiarity is that each viewer is different. Almost every attempt to force a viewer to see the Message perfectly will fail, because in the end the artwork becomes obvious, emotionally flat and boring. Once you understand the Message there is no more reason to look. Working with poetry, fiction, or theatre can let an artist show more specific meaning in their work (for example, “The Crucible”) but even these messages can fail over time, as politics, culture, mores, and fashions change. How many times have you heard of or seen a new interpretation of Hamlet (or some other Shakespearean play) reflecting current events.

Art historians regularly change the understanding of an artist be re-interpreting his or her work through the philosophic fashion of the moment, Marxism and class struggle, modernism, deconstruction et cetera. Legitimate change in understanding can come when lost information like personal correspondence or testimonies of friends and peers is found. Even new uses of technology, like the application of infrared spectroscopy and x-ray can change our understanding of how an artist worked or even that they painted over a previous image they’d come to dislike. Any new information will change our understanding of an artist, and thus change their meaning, if even only in incremental ways.

It is just silly to believe that someone viewing my paintings is going to think what I want them to think. From spending time at galleries talking with people about my work I’ve come to appreciate their Message more and more. When somebody reveals a new viewpoint on my paintings it is marvelous. Even if it is diametrically opposite of what I intended, their reasoning reveals who they –the viewer- are. I’ve come to believe that my paintings (and my Message) are not finished till they are viewed (which means that they are never finished, as there is always someone else to view them) because when they are viewed something new is created in the viewer’s mind. My hope still is to provide my Message, but the most important component of that is the dialog, the (hopefully) new thoughts that the viewer gets – to do with as they wish. When I am working on new projects or reviewing old ones, I will often abandon ideas that could be easily misconstrued. I had a series (image, image, image, image) a few years ago in which I tried to comment on the culture’s conflicted attitudes about violence. I have abandoned it for now at least, because it can to easily be seen as anti-gun or pro gun control, when I am neither. Other paintings I’ve done were purposefully designed to change in their meaning over time. An example is the Automotive series, which aims to comment on the ethereal nature of the material world – how everything is “born to dust.” No one expects to see a brand new Ferrari rusting away in the woods, but in forty years who knows? In this case, the message about mortality is itself mortal and will loose its impact over time.

So Message art is transitory and variable, often in ways out of the hands of the artist altogether. What does this have to do with “Piss Christ?”

A number of disclosures, first I have avoided reading about Mr. Serrano’s message in his own words, preferring to let the image speak for itself (as will his other images, many of which I find appalling). For good or ill, it is the image that will last in time, not Mr. Serrano himself. Any testimony he gives will likely be revised after his passing according to the viewpoints of those writing the history.
Secondly, as anyone who continues to read this blog will find, I am both a Christian and a conservative. I have been accused of being a bible-thumping 'fundamentalist,' although I avoid that term as it has too many un-Christian political and theological connotations.

The criticism over the “Piss Christ” and another, though less important now, Icon of the anti-elite, “the Last Temptation of Christ” shows more of a lack of thought on the part of the critics than anything else. “The Last Temptation” came out shortly after my adult conversion (which, like all conversions entailed some rather radical change in my behavior and choices) and I remember my parents being very worried about my going off the deep end. On one visit home they sat me down and very seriously asked me what I thought about the movie and all of the picketing and protesting surrounding it. I told them that I hadn’t seen the movie (more a matter of budget than anything else) but that my understanding of the plot was that Jesus was tempted to avoid the cross, marry Mary Magdalene, and settle down to a comfortable life. Since the bible says that Jesus was tempted in every way than human-kind are, and the movie showed him subseqently rejecting the temptation; I then saw nothing heretical about it. Jesus probably was tempted in such a way; I just didn’t think he would spend two and a quarter hours on it. This seemed to please my parents and they stopped worrying that their twenty six year old son had become a cult member.

The arguments against “Piss Christ” as an image (not as an argument against government funding of the arts, which is different) show a similar shallowness of understanding.

It is in many ways a beautiful image (I remember one member of the government, though who I am no longer sure, saying to the effect that if he didn’t know the title or how it was made, he would have found it appealing). It’s perceived theological implications are what have gotten it in trouble, yet those implications show a deep lack of understanding of theology.

Who was Christ? Why did he come to earth? Why did he – God incarnate – allow a bunch of dust* to kill him?

In Christian belief that reason was that he would take away mankind’s sins, allowing us to have a relationship with God. The descriptions of the Bible tell us that he took upon himself, while on the cross, the sins of the whole world.

So on the one hand, we have the spiritual excrement of all of the billions of people who have lived, now live, and will ever live piled upon the actual human and spiritual form of the Deity. Further, this is the cause - the spiritual reason - that he had to die. On the other hand we have a cheap three-dimensional piece of jewelry dropped into a jar of urine. What is worse? If the image offends your religious sensibilities maybe you should go back and re-examine those sensibilities. More bluntly, if you don’t like Christ being peed on, repent!

There is no doubt that a lot of art out there is garbage. Much is made with the purpose of offending “bourgeois” values (something that Mr. Serrano has made a point of). Why reward such behavior by canonizing the images you claim to loath? Yes, by all means let’s get rid of government subsides for bad art, if that is what the public wishes (or at least make artists who accept such money to agree that the people who pay have a say in what their money buys). But remember, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Matthew 7:1-2 (NIV)

*"Man born of woman is of few days and full of trouble. He springs up like a flower and withers away; like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure." Job 14:1-2 (NIV)

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