Piss Christ Slashed By French Catholics

On Palm Sunday, French Christians stormed a museum and slashed Andres Serrano's Piss Christ

When Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ debuted a quarter century ago, American Christians expressed outrage that it received NEA funding. On Palm Sunday, French Christians took more violent action.

Guardian (“Attack on ‘blasphemous’ art work fires debate on role of religion in France“):

When New York artist Andres Serrano plunged a plastic crucifix into a glass of his own urine and photographed it in 1987 under the title Piss Christ, he said he was making a statement on the misuse of religion.

Controversy has followed the work ever since, but reached an unprecedented peak on Palm Sunday when it was attacked with hammers and destroyed after an “anti-blasphemy” campaign by French Catholic fundamentalists in the southern city of Avignon.

The violent slashing of the picture, and another Serrano photograph of a meditating nun, has 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.

It also marks a return to an old standoff between Serrano and the religious right that dates back more than 20 years, to Reagan-era Republicanism in the US.

The photograph, full title Immersion (Piss Christ), was made in 1987 as part of Serrano’s series showing religious objects submerged in fluids such as blood and milk. In 1989, rightwing Christian senators’ criticism of Piss Christ led to a heated US debate on public arts funding. Republican Jesse Helms told the senate Serrano was “not an artist. He’s a jerk.”

Serrano defended his photograph as a criticism of the “billion-dollar Christ-for-profit industry” and a “condemnation of those who abuse the teachings of Christ for their own ignoble ends”. It was vandalised in Australia, and neo-Nazis ransacked a Serrano show in Sweden in 2007.

The photograph had been shown in France several times without incident. For four months, it has hung in the exhibition I Believe in Miracles, to mark 10 years of art-dealer Yvon Lambert’s personal collection in his 18th-century mansion gallery in Avignon. The show is due to end next month, but two weeks ago a concerted protest campaign began.

[…]

On Saturday, around 1,000 Christian protesters marched through Avignon to the gallery. The protest group included a regional councillor for the extreme-right Front National, which recently scored well in the Vaucluse area in local elections. The gallery immediately stepped up security, putting plexiglass in front of the photograph and assigning two gallery guards to stand in front of it.

But 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.

Even as an atheist, I share the late Senator Helms’ view of Serrano and his artistic expression. But it never ceases to amaze me how little the most fanatical adherents to any religion actually understand its most fundamental teachings. Jesus of Nazareth would have counseled turning the other cheek and focusing on self-improvement and good works, rightly seeing such provocations as an image in a jar of urine as a trifle.

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, Religion
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Paul L says:

    Jesus of Nazareth would have counseled turning the other cheek and focusing on self-improvement and good works, rightly seeing such provocations as an image in a jar of urine as a trifle.

    As he did with the moneychangers in the temple.
    It never ceases to amaze me how those who do not practice Christianity believe they can lecture those who do on how to do it correctly.

    1
  2. John Peabody says:

    At least the preacher in Florida purchased his own copy of the Koran to ‘defile’ it. How, exactly, does a photograph hung on a wall disturb one’s relationship with Christ?

  3. James Joyner says:

    @Paul: A very specific case, though, in which he was claiming authority over “my father’s house.” He wasn’t reacting to an insult.

  4. Dissenter says:

    “Jesus of Nazareth would have counseled turning the other cheek and focusing on self-improvement and good works, rightly seeing such provocations as an image in a jar of urine as a trifle.”
    Strange, but I, as a Catholic, am a bit less sure about what Jesus of Nazareth would do in this situation. I can’t remember a single reference in the Gospels to Jesus’ counseling “self-improvement,” but he certainly did beat up some money-changers and merchants in the temple. As for “turning the other cheek,” Christians do a lot of that when it comes to such “trifles” as Serrano’s “art.” This “slap” has been going on for twenty-four years. However, I think I agree with the Joyner’s point: best ignore such pseudo-art. Then people like Serrano might have to actually work for a living.

  5. Dissenter says:

    @Joyner: “He wasn’t reacting to an insult.” Oh yes he was; the worst form of insult. It’s called sacrilege.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    In concurrence with Paul L, above, I think the religious issue is a little knottier than you’re suggesting. Jesus’ exhortation and example of meekness in the face of insult had to do with insult to onesself, not blasphemy or sacrilege. To my knowledge the sole example of Jesus using physical force against persons is in the case of blasphemy or sacrilege.

    As others have suggested above, I honestly don’t know what imitating Christ would be in this instance. It’s possible that Jesus would have considered the actions of the protesters as a violation of the civil law and punishable under the civil law. I think that’s right. I think the protesters should be fined for misdemeanor destruction of property (the paper and glass involved) and disorderly conduct and sent home.

    As for my own opinion I think the protesters acted wrongly. Whatever blasphemy was involved is a fly speck.

    I think there are probably more important thngs to worry about. For example, France is presently intervening in two civil wars in Africa.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Fair enough. Although, presumably, the destruction of incredibly valuable works of art is more than mere tearing of paper? I don’t happen to see any value in a photo of a urine-soaked religious symbol but there’s no disputing that it has become culturally significant and would have fetched hundreds of thousands–if not millions–at auction.

    Would defacing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre be a mere misdemeanor?

  8. JKB says:

    True, it is not according to the teachings of Christ but of recent, we have seen many examples of the Left and Governments cowering beneath Muslim violence while continuing destructive attacks on Christianity. There comes a time with such behavior by those in authority will cause even adherents of a peaceful religion to realize they must adapt to survive. You get the behavior you reward.

  9. Tano says:

    . I think the protesters should be fined for misdemeanor destruction of property (the paper and glass involved) and disorderly conduct and sent home.

    That is ridiculous. It is an extremely valuable work of art,
    As a firm believer in capitalism, I am sure all of you would recognize that your own valuation of the work – as worthless – is meaningless. It is the market that sets the value of things, and no doubt the market for this work makes its destruction a felony.

    Even if it were just a piece of paper, you think that the forced invasion of private property, assault and battery against two guards, and the willfull destruction of property all amounts to “disorderly conduct”???

    Are standards in law to be trumped by personal feelings in matters like this?

  10. john personna says:

    Artist, protesters, both nuts. Move along.

  11. JKB says:

    And the only “culturally significant’ value to this piece is as an example of the government funded abuse Christianity has had to tolerate in the name of “art.” It is an example of an “artist” using offense and controversy to make up for his lack of talent or creativity. It utilized no unique skills or even any artistic skills. Remove Christ and you have objects in piss, hardly culturally significant.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    Although, presumably, the destruction of incredibly valuable works of art is more than mere tearing of paper?

    I am reminded of the story of Ooka and the man accused of stealing the smell of frying fish. The intrinsic value of the work is trivial as is (IMO) the symbolic offense that it represents. If you fine according to its worth as art based in symbolism, shouldn’t the provocation that it represents be taken equally seriously?

  13. john personna says:

    JKB, was it actually “funded?” Wikipedia says this:

    The piece was a winner of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s “Awards in the Visual Arts” competition,[1] which is sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, a United States Government agency that offers support and funding for artistic projects.

    I am not a fan of government arts funding in general, but I think this case has often been overstated. If the thing won an award from some crazy Southeastern Center which itself was funded “in part” part by the National Endowment for the Arts, that’s a few steps removed.

  14. PD Shaw says:

    Is it possible that it’s value has increased? It’s no longer a piece of art stuck in time, but it now captures both message and response. Interactive art.

  15. TG Chicago says:

    @JKB:

    True, it is not according to the teachings of Christ but of recent, we have seen many examples of the Left and Governments cowering beneath Muslim violence while continuing destructive attacks on Christianity. There comes a time with such behavior by those in authority will cause even adherents of a peaceful religion to realize they must adapt to survive. You get the behavior you reward.

    So it’s okay if a peaceful religion becomes violent as long as they have endured “continuing destructive attacks”? Like constant invasions and bombardments and drone attacks on civilians?

    Oh, no, you just meant a “destructive attack” like a photo that’s been around for a quarter century.

    Next time somebody tries to tell me that Muslims are crazy for rioting over a burned Koran, I will still agree (referring solely to the specific Muslims who rioted). But I’ll point out that it ain’t just Muslims that are crazy.

  16. PD Shaw says:

    I condemn the beheading of U.N. workers by Christian terrorists.

  17. wr says:

    Christianity is a religiong of peace. So any violence committed in the name of Christianity isa actually a peaceful act.

    Yup, that’s the same kind of thinking that excuses torture by the American government: “We’re good, therefore whatever we do must be good.”

    People who cry like their kids are being killed when a shop clerk fails to say “Merry Christmas” think it’s just dandy for their team to commit armed assault in order to destroy a work of art they think is icky.

    Yeah, you’re so much different from the people you hate.

  18. PD Shaw says:

    I condemn the beheading of people who say “Happy Holidays!”

  19. Michael says:

    I condemn the beheading of U.N. workers by Christian terrorists.

    Only the beheadings? Or any form of murder?

  20. JKB says:

    Well, Ann Althouse lays it out pretty well so I’ll just make a few observations.

    First off, this was a photograph. Run down to Kinko’s and print another copy.

    Second, it wasn’t even unique as 10 such photos were originally produced.

    Third, the museum is now displaying this enhanced art and using the controversy to improve attendance. So the vandals, probably increased the value of this print by adding artistic features, enhanced the value of the other 9 prints as where there were 10 there are now 9 and dragged this garbage out of obscurity exposing it to another generation.

    It is not, as if someone slashed the Mona Lisa, which is a unique rendering in oils generated by a long dead artist. Unless, the significant artistic value was added by the 1987 kodachrome paper and the skills of the film developer. Otherwise, hit the print button on a large format printer and be done with it.

    The NEA exists as welfare for the producers of ugly and non-creative art. Those who, without the NEA, would have to face that only their mother thinks they are talented at art were it not for government funded “experts.” Otherwise, these “artists” would be able to induce the wealthy to fund their art as it was done before government forceable extraction of money from the wealthy to fund art was discovered.

  21. Northeast Elizabeth says:

    Nowhere does the linked article state that the people who actually destroyed the artwork were Catholics or Christians. It says they were ” people in sunglasses aged between 18 and 25.” You must have linked to the wrong article.

  22. Michael says:

    First off, this was a photograph. Run down to Kinko’s and print another copy.

    Seriously?

    Unless, the significant artistic value was added by the 1987 kodachrome paper and the skills of the film developer.

    It was. Just like prints made from wood carvings or metal etching.

    The NEA exists as welfare for the producers of ugly and non-creative art.

    And also for the producers of beautiful and creative art, which I’m sure you’ve unknowingly enjoyed on multiple occasions.

    Otherwise, these “artists” would be able to induce the wealthy to fund their art as it was done before government forceable extraction of money from the wealthy to fund art was discovered.

    And how long ago do you have to travel to find a time where public money wasn’t used to fund art? The Mona Lisa was funded by the government.

  23. wr says:

    JKB — I remember a few years back there was a model who was terribly disfigured when some psycho threw acid in her face. Without a doubt, she became much more famous after the attack than before it. Does that mean her attacker should be forgiven, or even praised, because he raised her profile?

    As for your nonsene and running to Kinko’s, well, if you know this little about the art world maybe you should stick to complaning about taxes.

  24. An Interested Party says:

    Lost in all of this are Serrano’s very legitimate criticisms of how many people practice Christianity as a “billion-dollar Christ-for-profit industry” and a “condemnation of those who abuse the teachings of Christ for their own ignoble ends”…

  25. TG Chicago says:

    @Northeast Elizabeth

    Nowhere does the linked article state that the people who actually destroyed the artwork were Catholics or Christians. It says they were ” people in sunglasses aged between 18 and 25.” You must have linked to the wrong article.

    Yeah, the attack was preceded by an intense protest campaign led by Christians, and Christians are the only ones with a motive, but it was probably done by Muslims.

    Oh wait, the title of the linked article is “Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ destroyed by Christian protesters”. So I guess it was Muslim double-agents.

  26. Jay Tea says:

    It seems that some Christians have finally learned the lesson — if you want respect, demand it through violence and the threats of violence. Otherwise, your religion is fair game to be pissed all over — in this case, literally.

    Maybe now high government officials will now weigh in and make public statements and bring pressure to bear on those who threaten to insult and blaspheme against Christianity, out of fear that they will retaliate.

    That’s the lesson we’ve been teaching, at least in relation to Islam. It was only a matter of time before some Christians took it up, and tried it themselves.

    J.

  27. wr says:

    That’s right, Jay — even when it’s your team acting like fascists, you can always find a way to blame it on the other guys. So much for the “party of personal responsibility.”

  28. Jay Tea says:

    What would be “my team,” wr? You’re demonstrating your feeble-mindedness again, pushing me into your stereotypes so you don’t have to actually think. I’m a born-again agnostic, and have publicly and repeatedly affirmed my non-Christian status.

    “My team” is the team of civilization, and has been depressed for years over how Islam has demanded “respect” at knife-point and gotten it. It was inevitable that some Christians would pick up on that and try it for themselves.

    And now, what do those who so readily kowtowed to Islamic threats and demands for “respect” do when Christians use the very same tactics that worked so successfully? It’ll be educational to see.

    Personally, I hope they don’t bow to the Christians… AND finally find their spine against the Muslims. But I ain’t holding my breath for that to happen.

    J.

  29. wr says:

    Yeah, Jay, you’re a maverick. A rebel, a rogue, a loner. It’s just coincidence that every other message you post parrots Fox/RNC talking points.

  30. Jay Tea says:

    wr, I’ve stopped counting how many times you’ve wrongly pegged me into another of your pathetic little stereotypes just because it makes it easier for you. One would think you’d eventually give it up, but that would require the slightest gleaming of intelligence to be able to learn from your mistakes.

    For the record:

    I’m solidly in favor of gay marriage.

    I’m “squishily” pro-choice, but don’t really have an overwhelmingly strong opinion on the matter.

    I’m a confirmed agnostic.

    I’m pro death penalty.

    I’m a staunch believer in the 2nd Amendment, but own no guns and have no desire to do so.

    I think the birthers are idiots and playing into the hands of Obama and his minions.

    I think Ron Paul is pretty nuts, and the Paulbots very nuts — but they do have a few things right. Which makes it dangerous to dismiss them out of hand.

    And I think that you’re a moron who’s utterly fixed into your identity as a Champion Of The Left, and sees all who oppose you as stereotypes of how you see the Right, and obviously all believe in the same things. And you are only a fraction as intelligent as you think you are — if you doubled your IQ, you’d still only be a fraction as intelligent as michael reynolds, anjin, or mantis, who all are hopelessly wrong but capable of putting together coherent thoughts. You just pass off your standard talking points (probably lfited from DU, Kos, or another of the sewers of the Left) as the profoundest wisdom, and don’t even understand when you’ve had your ass handed to you.

    But that last one is utterly self-evident, to the point where I’m embarrassed to bring it up.

    Then I remember who I’m speaking with, and realize that even spelled out as simply as it is, you still won’t grasp it.

    J.

  31. Michael says:

    I’m a confirmed agnostic.

    How exactly does one go about confirming such a thing?

  32. I’m a confirmed agnostic.

    How exactly does one go about confirming such a thing?

    I don’t think you can really know the answer to that question

  33. Jay Tea says:

    I used to say “born-again” agnostic, but that just got some people annoyed.

    Now I just tell them I have a doctor’s note that confirms that I lack the faith gene. I am genetically incapable of experiencing religious faith.

    J.

  34. george says:

    It seems that some Christians have finally learned the lesson — if you want respect, demand it through violence and the threats of violence. Otherwise, your religion is fair game to be pissed all over — in this case, literally.

    Actually it does seem that reacting violently is a quite effective way to reduce the number of people who commit sacrilege against your religion. Not sure this is a new discovery though, for Christians or anyone … my vague recollection is that it was used fairly frequently during the middle ages in Europe.

    If we could embed videos, at this point I’d put in the Monty Python skit about the “Spanish Inquisition”.

  35. G.A.Phillips says:

    How exactly does one go about confirming such a thing?

    Look to see what side of the fence they are hanging from as they hide behind it?

  36. Jay Tea says:

    Then, George, perhaps I should have said “rediscovered.” It certainly seems to have been forgotten by so many. They should thank the Muslims for reminding them.

    J.