Museum of Contemporary Religious Art

April 20, 2011

Shattered civility

On April 18, 2011, artist Andre Serrano’s 1987 photograph Immersion (Piss Christ) was vandalized at the Collection Lambert in Avignon, France. The photo was the subject of intense controversy when it was first displayed and has continued to serve as a lightning rod for the tensions surrounding art and religion (as well as wider cultural and political issues).

Damage done to Andres Serranos "Immersion (Piss Christ)" on April 18, 2011.

I’ve skimmed through the comments on a number of blogs and news sites, and they are depressingly predictable, as authors assume well demarcated positions on the ramparts of the culture wars. Is Serrano critiquing or attacking Christianity? Has he done so in an acceptable or productive manner? If Serrano is critiquing “Christianity,” is the critique directed at an institution, or individual believers–or, turning the question around, who has warrant to take umbrage at the image? Does authorial intent matter when dealing with sacred imagery? Then again, how do we determine what images are deemed sacred? And then when all of this gets transposed into the realm of public funding, or legal action . . . well, it only gets murkier.

Several of the commenters reference the 2005-2006 controversy over Danish cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad  in satirical and provocative ways. There are parallels, although it’s an imperfect comparison (editorial license and freedom of speech are not precisely the same issues as artistic expression and public funding of art). At the very least, both controversies highlight general tendencies to rush to judgment, to make broad and inaccurate generalizations, and to allow vociferous minority voices to overwhelm more moderate points of view.

Coincidentally, just a couple of weeks ago I found myself catching up on a 2006 episode of “Speaking of Faith” (now called “On Being”), the excellent public radio series hosted by Krista Tippett. Titled “The Face of the Prophet: Cartoons and Chasm,” this episode features a conversation with Vincent Cornell, Professor of History and Director of the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas. Cornell puts the cartoon controversy in the wider context of the diverse manifestations of Islam. As happens so often when I listen to “On Being,” I found my unquestioned presuppositions challenged.

Cornell points out that historically Islam has had a more varied practice concerning images than popularly assumed. For instance, he notes that the proscription on depictions of the Prophet does not come directly from the Qur’an, but rather finds its source in the collection of deeds and words of the Prophet known as ahadith.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Christianity historically has had an ambivalent relationship with sacred imagery. In its early centuries Christianity repurposed prevailing Roman/Hellenistic motifs in establishing its own visual language. Yet in 8th-century Byzantium and in 16th-century Europe, major iconoclastic controversies arose.  (Considering the bloody and lethal violence surrounding the Byzantine Iconoclast controversy, we might at least consider it some progress that the hammer was taken to a photograph and not to Serrano’s skull.)

In the course of the conversation, Cornell references — you guessed it — Piss Christ, along with Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ. (We might add other examples, such as the movies Dogma and Hail Mary, Chris Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary, and most recently David Wojnarowicz’s video piece A Fire in My Belly.) Each of these artistic endeavors touched nerves in various quarters of Christianity, often without the critics having seen or read the work in question.

Cornell tackles the sensitive question of how the varying degrees of response in those cases compare to the responses to the Danish cartoons. He addresses nuances such as what happens when individuals confirm the worst stereotypes of a group, or how a tendency toward “radical superficiality” in culture, religion, or politics can be highly destructive.

Cornell cannot, of course, give any simple solutions. He calls for the exercise of “moral responsibility” in exercise of “freedom of speech.” Such responsibility arises from fundamental respect for others. But Cornell acknowledges how difficult it is to discern what such respect looks like in our pluralistic civic and religious spheres. (His ideas do not go unchallenged in listener comments on the program’s blog.) One notable example is the empathetic response of feeling a sense of shared offense when the religious sensibilities of people of another faith are disrespected.

I wonder if it might not be useful to distinguish the various levels on which a controversial artwork might be considered. Some discussions take place within a faith community, while others involve the broader society. On a civic level, Piss Christ raised issues about the use of government funds in relation to an artwork with overtly religious imagery. Inside the Christian community, response to Piss Christ has not been uniform, as seen in this poem by Andrew Hudgins which uses Serrano’s photo as springboard for an intensely incarnational bit of Christian theological reflection.

I’ve also become aware of a fascinating snippet of conversation between Sister Wendy Beckett and Bill Moyers in which she discusses Piss Christ. Sister Wendy supplies a helpful bit of terminology. Piss Christ, she says, is “comforting art.” Not because the image itself is comforting to all viewers, but because it is tremendously easy to have a clear reaction to the work, to come to a quick judgment about it, whether positive or negative. We are comforted when an artwork gives us an easy sense of knowing that we are right about it.

I’m attempting to stitch together these various strands of reflection together precisely because such issues lie close to the core of what we do at Saint Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA). Our mission is to present contemporary visual art that engages the religious and spiritual dimensions, hopefully in a way that fosters both a deepening of personal spirituality and an encounter with diverse faith traditions and understandings. We have not sought out or engendered controversy, but neither have we shied away from difficult subjects.

Our groundbreaking exhibition Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS expressed difficult realities and at times some raw emotions. We presented The Greater Good: An Artist’s View of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, knowing that its reflections on a painful episode in American racial history could be a tripwire in St. Louis, a city still  largely segregated culturally and geographically. Fortunately, it ended up occasioning some powerful and healing conversations.

From time to time an individual artwork we display will cause a visitor consternation. Whenever possible, when we become aware of such a situation we attempt to engage the visitor in conversation about the piece, providing whatever context we can to help them understand what the artist was about and why we are exhibiting it. Visitors may not change their thinking about the piece (and such is not our goal) but they at least know that they are being treated with respect.

Currently on display at MOCRA is another work of art with shattered glass. In the case of Donald Grant’s Vessel, however, the artist himself struck the blow, not for the sake of destruction, but for the liberating moment of epiphany and release of creative energy. (See this post for more discussion of this piece.)

Donald Grant, "Vessel," 1992. Acrylic on panel under tempered glass. Courtesy of the artist.

May our civic, religious, and artistic discourses be likewise illuminated and energized by mutual respect and concern for the dignity of all.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director


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