Saturday, October 22, 2005

Serrano and Other Such Things

A former student of mine (who runs the Asheville Green Room blog linked to at right) responds to my corruption of young minds:

So a bullwhip up the ass and a photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine is not credible art? Or is it that the creators of such art are not taking responsibility for the influence their art has on others?When is it okay for an artist to challenge the public? Who decides? If 9 out of ten people decide that the Piss Christ artist is being irresponsible, does that make it so? I remember seeing that photo for the first time and thinking - "heh, it's kinda pretty. Nice orange and red tint, the christ figure is seen at a distance and a little blurred, but still held in regal dignity by the pose on the cross. What a good metaphor for Christianity in the 20th Century."Ahhh, but others disn't see it tht way.

When The Nat' Museum in Victoria closed the exhibit, the press release did not comment upon the reaction to the phot - it laid bare the feelings of the public about the TITLE of the piece - "Piss Christ". To excuse the wit, this is what pissed people off - the name. "Madonna and Child II" was also a pic of icons submerged in urine, but no one complained about them - ever.Is it possible that Serrano WAS doing the responsible thing? By bringing the hypocritical-ness, the shallow-ness of fundamentalist Americans to the forefront of the nat'l discussion?

Here's the link to D'Amato and Helms' statements on the Senate floor regarding Piss Christ and Serrano. any of you agree with these two thugs?Then, didn't Serrano do the right thing by making this contentious art and laying bare the prudishness and snobbery and holier-than-thou attitude of our society?

Glad he brought all this up -- I would have been disappointed if somebody hadn't.

First, I did not say that Serrano and Mapplethorpe had not created "viable art." I did say that they created art that was focused primarily on shocking the middle class (which seems, in these days of decadence, to be the shortest route to fame in the art world). As Jess notes, a big part of the uproar was initially focused on the title of the work, whereas Madonna and Child II, a similar work, caused nary a ripple. Which actually makes my point: putting aside the work itself, surely Serrano knew his title would cause a strong negative reaction. So was his intent to "lay bare the prudishness and snobbery and holier-than-thou attitude of our society," or was his intent to piss people off? (By the way, I refer readers to my other posts concerning the artist's relationship to the audience here and here, among other places.)

Of course, talking about "artistic intent" is a dicey proposition. But certainly we can all agree that a title like Piss Christ, not to mention a work of art that submerges an image of Christ in urine, is like waving a red flag at a bull -- and about as complex. It isn't about causing reflection, it is an aggressive act that reflects an artistic rape mentality I mentioned in my much excoriated post, or at the very least contempt toward the audience. Did Serrano actually want to have a dialogue with the audience, with the people that Jess considers prudes and snobs? Or was it an act done with a wink to his artistic buddies and a "watch this"? To show the utter banality, and pathetic predictability of this type of thing, I refer you to the work called Sensation by the artist Ofili, who used elephant dung and pornographic pictures to create a picture of the Virgin Mary, and brought the same, identical firestorm (and fame) as Serrano's Piss Christ. (I've been considering doing a picture of John the Baptist using snot and child porn -- I could use the money.)

Now, both artists feigned shock that people became upset over their art. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt -- that they really weren't trying to piss people off, but rather make a point about religion. Again, this proves my point: artists need to get out among real people more, get to know them, get to know what they care about and how they think -- if they want to actually communicate with them. Which I don't think they do. I think they want to behave like adolescent Geniuses who can poop on the heads of the middle class with impunity like latter-day Greek gods.

Jess goes on to ask: "When is it okay for an artist to challenge the public? Who decides? If 9 out of ten people decide that the Piss Christ artist is being irresponsible, does that make it so?" As I said earlier in the lecture, "Am I saying that a responsible artist only creates art that supports the values and mores of his or her society, and so does not draw the ire of our elected officials or anybody else? No, I am not saying that at all. Sometimes you’ve got to raise a ruckus in order to draw attention to a problem. What I am saying is that we should question ourselves about the impact of artwork on those who see it. "

If artists are going to have a real impact, they must first establish trust from their audience. Think about your family or close friends -- you can behave badly around them sometimes, or yell at them for something they have done, because you have a long relationship with them based on trust. Around other people, you have to be polite, but around family you can lay it on the line. Consider it a "Trust Bank Account" in which we make deposits over time, and can make withdrawals when necessary.

Artists' trust bank accounts are badly overdrawn in today's world. We spent and spent and spent over the past 40 years or so, and now we're broke. In another context, with an artistic bank account full, Serrano might have been able to display Piss Christ and been listened to by the public, who might have been inclined to initially give him the benefit of the doubt. But people have come to expect bad behavior from artists, and they won't put up with it any more. And politicians like Helms and D'Amato use that expactation to clamor for the dismantling of the NEA and such.

In my lecture, I say: "Unless we artists want the idiot savants of the fundamentalist right and the fanatical left to tell us what we can and can’t say, draw, film, sing, or dance, then we need to start asking ourselves as artists what affect of our art work will have on the people who see it and hear it. I venture to say that the likelihood of government censorship is directly related to the lack of personal artistic responsibility taken by society’s artists. The more we don’t care what we say, the more others will."

So we can keep bouncing artistic checks, and then act hurt and betrayed when the government closes our account, or we can start behaving responsibly and make some deposits. Form relationships with people, prove that we can respect their lives, that we even understand their pain and suffering. Then, when we have something we want to protest, we will be listened to.


Anonymous said...

Serrano was a disillusioned and incompetent fool- only a man completely disconnected with reality could believe that such a vitriolic work might be capable accomplishing anything but stirring public disdain.

Like Scott mentioned, look at the title: "Piss Christ." C'mon, give me a break. Substantial discussion? Please.

Perhaps I should protest the negative influence of radical Islamic sects by doing a thought-provoking work called, "Shit on Allah's Face." I'm sure such a work would create a setting in which intelligent discussion could flourish.

Conservatives (even fundamentalists of all backgrounds) are still part of our immediate and larger community. If Serrano was really serious about creating a dialogue with these people, he would have understood that his work would be counterproductive. If he did not recognize that the work would be highly offensive to others, then he needs to leave his studio once in a while.

But then again, this seems to be the problem with the whole liberal movement over the past 10 years. We sure can point the finger and self-righteously assign blame, come up with excuses, and give lip service to our commitment to create a real dialogue, but don't ask us to offer real and productive solutions...or to try and really understand another point of view.


oldphort said...

The sad part is, I bet you could get Senators in the vein of Helms and D'Amato ot agree that a work such as "Shit on Allah's Face" deserves tobe funded by the NEA....

David said...

"So we can keep bouncing artistic checks, and then act hurt and betrayed when the government closes our account, or we can start behaving responsibly and make some deposits. Form relationships with people, prove that we can respect their lives, that we even understand their pain and suffering. Then, when we have something we want to protest, we will be listened to."

Scott - I think part of what you may be asking for is simply subtlety. Or, to use a much derided concept, sophistication which is merely the use of sophistry which is itself the effective use of rhetoric. People truly engaged in the act of influencing behavior and affecting change are using subversion and sophistry. Witness the brilliance of latter day conservative (Rovian) uses of language and co-option of meaning. Storytellers of old knew quite well to "watch their tongues" when speaking to power. To be allowed to speak is the first task, to be heard comes next, to be considered can only then follow. The late-capitalist culture we are trying to address influences the commodification of art in such a way that we present work more imitative (ie. in-your-face-loud) than discursive. I can speak to a school audience in a highly conservative/fundamentalist community if I avoid certain hot-button topics such as gods, witches, and fairies, yet still encourage them to imagine, perceive and consider the world in ways that their habitual practices avoid. In order to become more sophisticated we need to learn the craft of mediation. Just as a poet in another era might have been confined by the conventions of blank verse, we must admit that to be received we must work within certain conventions. Those conventions are not so clear and simple as an established verse form, but are out there if we pay attention to our audience. As you suggest, the artist can challenge conventions once trust has been established. I think Picasso's career is a shining example. The danger is that those who call themselves artists are being upstaged by the more subtle, insidious, rhetoriticians of the political arena. In regards to the perceived financial gain of outrageous art, I am reminded of our experience with Chris Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You at the Theatre Project Company in St. Louis 25 years ago. The show caught the attention of a conservative catholic watch group in D.C. who rallied the troupes in St. Louis and organized a boycott of our theatre. The controversy made big press at the time. Our artistic director went on the Phil Donahue Show, and the Missouri state senate debated the funding of the arts at great length as a result. The show of course sold out. You'd think that was fine. But we lost all our corporate funding and were severly hurt for public funds and ultimately the theatre folded as a direct result of that crippling controversy. We were not even trying to be confrontational, that was someone else's call altogether. But we were arguably naive about the sensitivities in our local and national community. Had we been given a choice of doing the show with all the controversy and surviving as a theatre company, I feel certain we would have chosen another show. "He who fights and runs away..."

thewebloge said...

A quick question: have you actually seen any of Chris Offili's work?

Freeman said...

Boy this whole line's a doozy.

Personally, I think the artist and the art are not the same thing, and we tend to equate them. I would guess that Serrano didn't want anyone to talk to him at all about "what he thought." He wanted people to look at his work and think whatever it is they thought about it. I think if people hate your work, that's just fine. Let them. At least they feel something about it.

The artist has no responsibility whatsoever to say or do anything at all. They are, in fact, supposed to break social contracts, attack their audience, embrace their audience and do whatever it is they feel is best to make their statement.

I'm sure there are plenty of artists that wouldn't have created "Piss Christ," but then again, no one is forcing them to. They can write "Driving Miss Daisy" if they prefer.

For the record, "Piss Christ" is still being giving substantial discussion. Take this one, for example. We're not discussing "Our Town" or Winslow Homer are we?

There's room enough for all the artists in the world to say different things. Let them. We are not supposed to create some united front to make the audience love all our work. We're supposed to get them to think that having an attitude about art is important.

Freeman said...

My response to this is entitled:

"Responsiblity of the Artist"

Anonymous said...

Hey Scott et al:
I have decided to put my thoughts down on my blog. if you're at all interested, here's my entry on the subject:

Thank you once again for your provocative entry into this debate!