If we believe that the arts are mission territory—and they are—they have to be approached with as much charity and cunning as the dugout of aboriginal tribesmen. There is little to be gained by viewing contemporary art as evidence of the depravity of man. It is bad missionary procedure to openly despise the culture we would transform. Granted, there is much to dismay, much to admonish. But the Church will not evangelize a slipping West while we cultivate our moral vanity by making an idol—or an ideology—of our own disapprovals.
What brings this up? Simple: Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) still draws fire nearly thirty years after its debut. As recently as last September, a group of Catholics demonstrated against it outside the Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery in Manhattan’s high rent district. We can count on more panty raids, more brinksmanship. Serrano’s public relations success has spawned a small industry of similar assaults. The perpetual resurrection of Piss Christ has become a game for masochists: Catholics keep presenting themselves to be whipped by dominant free-speechers .
Borrowed from the Left’s own sensitivity squads, aggressive tactics—like those of the Catholic League—misfire in the act of obtaining their objectives. Taking offense is the anticipated and desired response to transgressive art. It bolsters the significance of the offending work and, with it, its retail value. Nothing serves auction prices better than publicity from public outrage. It is a godsend to collectors, gallerists, and artists. Worse, howls of injury ratify popular images of the Church as captious, accusatory and censorious. In the end, bellicose responses feed the anti-Catholicism they are meant to combat.
Three decades are enough for us to realize that a culture war is not a street fight. The difference is pivotal if Catholics are serious about having a humane effect—something more significant than scoring apologies or closing events. The arts, too, wait to be redeemed.
Viewed strictly as an image, without regard to its provocative title, Serrano’s infamous photo is actually pretty. The crucifix floats in a pale golden, effervescent haze. Ginger ale? Champagne? It could easily read as a celebration of the means of redemption. Only the title tells us otherwise.
Imagine the confusion among our culturati if the League had thrown a curve and welcomed Piss Christ as a true picture—certainly not to its taste, but nonetheless valid—of the way the world treats its Saviour. In truth, the world pisses on the Cross every day. Catholics, sinners all, are not exempt.
Imagine a press release along these lines:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
We, members of the Catholic League, acknowledge the power of vulgarity in exposing the raw indecency of sin. While some might have reservations about the prudence of Mr. Serrano’s composition, we unite in applauding the sound theology behind it.
The Spirit works in mysterious ways, even to transforming the questionable taste and bad manners of artists. Not every artist is gifted with powers of exalted expression. But even lesser gifts bear witness to the effects of original sin. They too serve who only stand and stun. Mr. Serrano has given us a graphic image of a point made daily, if less colorfully, in pulpits from Seattle to Amsterdam. Especially Amsterdam.
The League remembers that the Church has its own iconographic tradition that many find unseemly or shocking. We think of statues of St. Agatha carrying her breasts on a plate, like cherry-topped meringues. Then there’s St. Lucy, her eyes served up as canapés. Picture St. Roc, lifting his skirt like a chorus girl to point coyly at horrid sores on his inner thighs. Saint Lawrence is turned on the grill like a pork chop. The crucifix itself is startling, an image of violent cruelty.
Andres Serrano has brought up to date an ancient pictorial pairing of the sacred and the grotesque. He has helped us see the crucifix with fresh eyes. Bravo!
Pssst, Andres! You’re a Catholic, right? Here, take the Mass schedule at St. Agnes. If ever you feel like praying with us—or for us—please come by. Don’t be shy about stopping at the rectory for coffee and crullers after Mass. We’d love to talk about your new work. God bless. See ya.