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. http://www.csulb.edu/~jvancamp/361_r7.htmlDo 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.