SACRIFICE, PISS CHRIST AND LIBERAL EXCESS
by Damien Casey
article was originally published in
Law, Text, Culture.
The response, by Michael Casey, Anthony Fisher, OP, Hayden Ramsay,
will appear in the
Andres Serrano's Piss Christ
has been at the centre of one controversy or another for a decade.
Much of the debate has focused on questions of tolerance and pluralism.
The claim that Piss Christ is offensive to Christians
seems to suggest, incorrectly I believe, that Piss Christ
has neither place nor precedent within the Christian tradition.
To the extent that Piss Christ questions the boundaries
between the sacred and the profane, it enacts what it represents.
It threatens the identity of conservative Christians who respond
by seeking to exclude it from the public realm. I consider that
what is at stake is not merely the question of tolerance within
a pluralist society but also of tolerance within a pluralist Church.
To whom do religious symbols belong and who has the authority
to prescribe the manner in which they are used? It will be my
argument in this article that Piss Christ, regardless
of authorial intention, is a profoundly religious work, to the
extent that it raises profound theological questions that speaks
to the very heart of Christianity. Consequently, after ten years,
Piss Christ is still worthy of consideration.
Christ found itself at the centre of controversy once again
in October 1997, when Melbourne was host to two exhibitions of
the work of Andres Serrano. Serrano's History of Sex
was showing at the Kirkcaldy Davies Gallery while the National
Gallery of Victoria was holding a Serrano retrospective, coinciding
with its high profile Rembrandt exhibition. As part of the Serrano
retrospective, Piss Christ proved to be of more than
historical interest when once again it became the subject of a
number of attacks. The first attack came from the Catholic archbishop
of Melbourne Dr. George Pell who, considering the work to be blasphemous,
applied unsuccessfully for a Supreme Court injunction to prevent
the National Gallery of Victoria from exhibiting the work. But
where the gavel failed the hammer of two youths succeeded, by
prompting Dr Timothy Potts, the director of the NGV, to cancel
the show. Dr Potts claims that he acted out of concern for the
safety of his staff, although the general opinion seems to be
that he acted hastily primarily out of anxiety for the Rembrandts.
Christ is not Serrano's more visually striking piece, but
it does seem to have generated its own aura out of controversy,
and has subsequently become a sort of standard bearer for many
of the issues that Serrano's work addresses. It all began in 1989
when Piss Christ, along with the homoerotic photographs
of Robert Mapplethorpe, found themselves at the centre of controversy
in the United States, where the forces of the Christian Right
rallied to curtail the National Endowment for the Arts. More recently,
Congress legislated, upheld by the Supreme Court, that the NEA
must take "into consideration general standards of decency"
in awarding grants. (Biskupic, 1998) The "culture wars"
in the U.S. were launched by what could be seen as a ritual counter-desecration,
when Senator Alphonse D'Amato tore up a copy of Piss Christ
in the chambers of the U.S. Senate on May 18, 1989. In so doing,
the Senator launched Piss Christ into prominence, making
it a symbol of the excesses of liberalism.
issue goes to the heart of the most sacred American separation
of Church and State. It remains to be seen, however, to which
side of the divide the art establishment belongs. Back in Australia,
an infamous piece of Liberal Party electioneering portrayed art
as the domain of the elite. At the National Gallery of Victoria
the art establishment certainly behaved as if it were a Church,
treating its Rembrandts as if they were their most sacred relics.
It is a shame that the juxtaposition of Serrano with Rembrandt
was seen as a cause for anxiety rather than an opportunity. Surely,
our understanding and appreciation of the work of both artists
would have benefited if such a conversation had been allowed to
take place. Not only would the many baroque themes and forms of
Serrano's work have been brought to our attention, but we could
also have discovered new ways of looking at Rembrandt, and the
manner in which he also deals with the ambiguity of the abject
and its relation to the sacred. I am not suggesting that Serrano
be put on the same level as Rembrandt, but rather that misplaced
reverence does no service to Rembrandt.
to its high profile, Piss Christ has come to be seen
as emblematic of Serrano's "tableaux" dealing with fluids;
blood, urine, milk and sperm. Taken out of this context, however,
Serrano's play upon baroque themes with a minimalist palette tends
to get lost. But whatever the artist's painterly intentions, they
have been overshadowed by the religious aspect of his work. It
is my contention that it is Serrano's exploration of the relation
between the abject and the sacred that makes Piss Christ
not only good art, but good religious art, bordering on the iconic.
I am thinking of the theological meaning of icon in which the
icon is less a representation than a window onto a deeper reality.
Piss Christ is also a parable in which our expectations
are turned outside down in order that the sacred may manifest,
because as Hegel expressed: "the familiar is not understood
precisely because it is familiar."
of its reception appears to show that Serrano's work in general
and Piss Christ in particular has already unsettled and
transgressed many boundaries and in the process questions that
which is most familiar. Maybe it is not so much a question of
the sacred and the profane so much as the sacred and the mundane.
Those who consider Piss Christ to be blasphemous would
seem to consider that Serrano has profaned a sacred object. In
doing so he is considered to have transgressed a distinction that
should remain respected and protected. Serrano, they might consider,
has in effect pissed on God. Serrano has transgressed upon the
sacred with the ultimate profanity. But is it not possible that
Piss Christ also reveals a genuine and insightful religiosity?
In a letter to the NEA, Serrano argues that he did not consider
Piss Christ impious or blasphemous.
and the title itself, are ambiguously provocative but certainly
not blasphemous. Over the years, I have addressed religion regularly
in my art. My Catholic upbringing informs this work which helps
me to redefine and personalize my relationship with God. My use
of such bodily fluids as blood and urine in this context is parallel
to Catholicism's obsession with "the body and blood of Christ."
It is precisely in the exploration and juxtaposition of the symbols
from which Christianity draws it strength.
it is the title that causes the offence. It is the title that
frames the work and which brings the juxtaposition of the sacred
and the abject to the fore. A related work, Piss Light, while
containing the same visual elements as Piss Christ could
indeed be considered to be a Piss "lite" to the extent
that the title is less confrontational. Indeed, if it is the title
that provokes the most offence it could also be seen to evoke
the irony of the inscription placed above the cross as recounted
by the gospels: "The King of the Jews". But then, the
irony of that gesture has also been obscured through familiarity.
that surrounded the Serrano exhibition at the NGV was well encapsulated
by a Leunig cartoon that appeared in the paper at the time. It
depicted an outraged Archbishop at the foot of the cross crying,
"you'll be hearing from our lawyers." Leunig is to my
mind quite astute in his observation that the desire to protect
and quarantine the sacred can quite easily tend towards the absurd.
Piss Christ reminds us that the cross was a sign of ignominy.
It was not a symbol commonly used by the early Christians, because
for them its associations were all too clear. Theologically, the
death of Jesus is God's highest self-divestment or kenosis. It
is here that the definite Christian revelation of God is to be
found; in life and death of Jesus, his renunciation of mastery
and identification with servitude, the poor and the oppressed
and all those we "treat like shit."
implication is that the concept of divine sovereignty as divine
mastery over the world must be abandoned. God's place is with
the abject every bit as much as it is on the high altar of the
cathedral. Yes, the crucifix as a triumphant symbol is a delicious
irony in keeping with the spirit of the gospels. But that irony
is lost when we forget its strong association with both ignominy
and abjection. Then it merely becomes a sign of domination. In
denying negation in God, classical Christian thought obscured
one of its most profound insights into suffering. To speak to
questions of suffering and injustice Christian thought must uncover
its suppressed elements and acknowledge that its symbols, like
the divine, cannot be mastered. Serrano's Piss Christ
goes some way towards doing this.
Christ raises profound theological questions concerning Christianity's
relation to the logic of sacrifice that has shaped culture. It
is a relation marked by ambivalence due to the strength of both
sacrificial and anti-sacrificial trajectories within the Christian
tradition. Piss Christ is indeed blasphemous to extent
that it subverts the sacrificial interpretation of Christ's death.
But in doing so it is also prophetic to the extent that it calls
to mind something perhaps even more essential and original to
Christianity. It is this issue that I want to explore in the remainder
of this article using Piss Christ as an aid for reflection.
Like any good art work Piss Christ is evocative rather
than didactic and revels in an ambiguity that only individual
acts of interpretation can clarify. But already I am implicated
in that which Serrano questions. We cannot help but seek to impose
order on an otherwise messy world.
Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim states
known religious beliefs . . . always suppose a bipartite division
of the whole universe, known and knowable, into two classes
which embrace all that exists, but which radically exclude each
other. Sacred things are those which the interdictions protect
and isolate; profane things those to which these interdictions
are applied and which must remain at a distance. (Durkheim,
level Piss Christ seems to transgress the distinction
between the sacred and the profane. Closer examination reveals
however that things are not so simple. The separation of the sacred
and the profane has meant that the sacred is itself hedged in
by prohibitions. By its very opposition to the profane, the sacred
by its nature threatens the social order of everyday profane existence
while at the same time legitimizing its institutions. The function
of sacrifice here is to establish order and mark boundaries. Sacrifice
constructs and protects the identity of the community whether
through expelling its impure elements or by purifying and legitimating
lines of descent. In either case, sacrifice constitutes culture
by separating it from nature. In accordance with the logic of
sacrifice anything overly ambiguous or permeable that defies the
principle of non-contradiction becomes the excluded middle. That
which confounds this "A/not A" distinction is considered
to be impure to the extent that it "departs from symbolic
order" or is "incompatible with the Temple." (Kristeva,
1982: 91) In this way sacrificial logic mimics the whole system
of signification conceived as a system of differences.
to this understanding of signification -- that derives from Saussure
among others -- meaning is not a function of the relation between
the sign and that to which it points, but is rather a function
of its difference from other signs. Meaning is not so much a matter
of indexical relation - even an animal knows that smoke is an
index of fire -- but of symbolic relations. Consequently, impurity
is not a quality of the thing in itself but a function of the
thing outside of its proper place. Part of the function of sacrifice
is, if not to domesticate the sacred, at least to keep it in its
place. A vivid historical testimony to this can be found in the
death of Captain Cook who learnt this lesson the hard way. When
Cook arrived at the Hawaiian Islands near an important shrine
during the four months of Lono, he was mistaken for the god Lono
and was worshipped. When he returned outside of the time of Lono
he was perceived as a threat, killed and sacrificed.
between the sacred's disruptive power and our desire to domesticate
it is paralleled by our horror of the abject to the extent that
it also threatens to break down and blur boundaries. The abject,
according to the highly influential analysis of Julia Kristeva,
are those things that blur the neat distinction between subject
and object and consequently threaten the substantiality of identity.
Culture is adverse to the abject. It is its antinomy. Serrano
explores the abject not only in his Fluids series but
also in his confrontation with death in The Morgue in
which the abject is taken to its "limit". Kristeva suggests
that, "if dung signifies the other side of the border, the
place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the
most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon
everything. It is no longer I who expel, `I' is expelled. The
border has become an object. How can I be without border?"
(Kristeva, 1982: 3-4.)
intriguing to consider that it is perhaps anxiety about borders
that lies at the heart of the U.S. "culture wars." The
fear of so called "liberal excess" perhaps finds its
clearest voice in the cry: "is nothing sacred?" The
provocation of border anxiety is, after all, a common denominator
in the works of both Serrano and Mapplethorpe. The anxiety that
Mapplethorpe provokes finds its expression, not in the abject
so much as in the destabilization of sexual identity that manifests
in homophobia. Iris Marion Young considers homophobia to be the
most trenchant of border anxieties precisely because unlike other
physical distinctions of race, sex, or disability, the border
between gay and straight is so permeable. (Young, 1990: 146) The
homosexual to the extent that he defies the A/not A distinction
is an "abomination". The interesting thing about homophobia
however is that it tends too manifest most clearly amongst those
who doth protest too much.
there seems to be an aura of the disingenuous about any accusation
of blasphemy. The line between the domestication and the protection
of the sacred is so thin as to be permeable. But then when a church
identifies itself too closely with the sacrificial logic of exclusion,
a gesture like Serrano's will inevitably call that identity into
question. The abject, however, by definition cannot be domesticated.
It is for this reason that Georges Bataille in his effort to retrieve
a sense of the sacred that was unable to be domesticated sought
to re-establish the ancient association of the sacred with the
abject as that which exceeds the grasp of reason under the name
"heterology". Heterology is the science of the sacred
that has not ossified into doctrines and dogma. Bataille believed
that once objectified, the sacred became a thing and ceased to
be sacred. Heterology, Bataille considered, is mindful of the
fact that our notions of "God" all too often become
obstacles to the sacred. Heterology is:
science of what is completely other. The term agiology [the
study of the holy] would perhaps be more precise, but one would
have to catch the double meaning of agio (analogous to the double
meaning of sacer), soiled as well as holy. But it is above all
the term scatology (the science of excrement ) that retains
in the present circumstances (the specialization of the sacred)
an incontestable expressive value as the doublet of an abstract
term such as heterology.(Bataille, 1985: 102n.)
Caroline Walker Bynum has demonstrated the manner in which, for
the medieval imagination, the status of the things that the body
left behind became a question of vital importance for eschatology
to the extent that questions of eschatology and scatology sometimes
became intertwined. What is it, the medievals asked, that is resurrected
with the resurrection of the body? What was the status of food,
finger nail clippings, dead skin and hair? What worried the medieval
imagination was the relation between identity and change and the
boundary between what is other to the self and what is intrinsic
to the identity, understood in terms of the integrity of the body.
(See Bynum, 1995.) The medievals however were suspicious of all
processes of becoming. It was rather stasis and self containment
that seemed to signify perfection. It was for this reason that
the crucifixion of Christ held so much fascination, precisely
because it so contradicted the metaphysical idea of perfection
while making his humanity so vivid.
was generally considered to be the most abject of deaths and for
this reason the criminal was executed outside the limits of the
city. He was literally expelled from society. In the case of Christ's
crucifixion this state of abjection was experienced bodily through
piercing and scourging, "like water draining away",
(Psalm 22: 14.) the boundary between inside and outside collapsed.
The permeability of Christ's body was such that many medieval
mystics came to identify the body of Christ as feminine. "Not
only was Christ enfleshed with flesh from a woman; his own flesh
did womanly things: it bled, it bled food and it gave birth."
(Bynum, 1992: 101.) In the words of Marguerite of Oingt, his "veins
burst when in one day [he] gave birth to the whole world."
(Bynum, 1992: 97) Birth is of course a very messy process.3
light of so much abjection, piss is surely a very mild thing.
Or is the issue one of presumption of Serrano's part that he should
so identify with Christ as to immerse a crucifix in his own urine?
To the extent that Serrano in his Fluids series uses
not only urine but blood, sperm and milk, it is clearly not the
piss itself that is significant so much as bodily fluids in general.
Bodily fluids defy the myth of self containment which is why the
crucifixion has always been such a stumbling block for Platonic
metaphysics. Which is why the death of God needs to be proclaimed
over and over again.
specifically Christian understanding, on the other hand, would
focus not so much upon the abjection of sacrifice but upon a God
identifies with those who are "abjectified". Despite
common perceptions, the sacrificial interpretation of the death
of Jesus can be found in only one book of the New Testament, and
that book, the Letter to the Hebrews, is about the end
of sacrifice. The overall logic of the New Testament could be
seen to overturn the sacrificial distinction between the sacred
and the profane rather than reinforce it. For Nietzsche it is
the "death of God" that abolishes the logic of sacrifice
and the metaphysical distinction between the "true"
and apparent world that has served to denigrate the everyday world
of experience. (Nietzsche, 1982a: 485-6) Nietzsche hopes that
with its abolition the everyday may itself be infused with the
aura that had previously been reserved for the sacred. In this
at least, Nietzsche is highly incarnational.
of sacrifice is most clearly expressed within the Eucharist which
is the paramount sacrament of Christian identity. As Kristeva
expresses succinctly: "to eat and drink the flesh and blood
of Christ means . . . to transgress symbolically the Levitical
prohibitions, to be symbolically satiated." (Kristeva, 1982:
119) Sin comes to reside no longer in the impurity of the object
but in the subjective will. But even though the New Testament
ostensibly presents us with the end of sacrifice, sacrifice has
remained an intrinsic part of Christian understanding. The sacramental
theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet concedes that while throughout
the history of Christianity the anti-sacrificial has been retained
and lived by an elite, the most common representation and practice
has tended towards the sacrificial. (Chauvet, 1995: 310) It would
appear, therefore, that there is a strong tendency - psychological
or cultural - towards the logic of sacrifice that cannot be effectively
denied, but which can perhaps be redeemed.
denial of sacrifice does not escape the sacrificial logic. The
attempt to simply negate the A/not A binary remains trapped by
the very logic that it is trying to avoid. Simple liberalisation
has its own inherent dangers. Chauvet warns that to conceive a
God who is "all love" in reaction to the vengeful God
can be just as perverse. "When `love', under the pretext
of forgiveness, can no longer forbid anything, when it is itself
no longer structured by a law and thus by prohibitions, this excess
of love, to which one can never respond adequately . . . risks
being experienced imaginatively as an unpayable debt." (Chauvet,
1995: 315) It becomes in effect a persecution. It is perhaps the
return of the sacred excess as exemplified by Bataille's potlatch
in which the spiralling game of one-upmanship under the pretext
of generosity aims at the destruction of the other. Piss Christ
does not deny the logic of sacrifice. Rather, it subverts it by
bringing it into contact with its repressed / contaminating elements.
is one more approach by which to make sense of the issues surrounding
Piss Christ and its relation to both the sacred and sacrifice.
The structuralist paradigm describes a bipartite division that
structures all systems of signification according to two distinct
yet inseparable logics. These two logics could perhaps be understood
in terms of A:B rather than A/not A to the extent that neither
is reducible to the other. Roman Jakobson described these axes
of signification in terms of the tropes of metaphor and metonymy
which he considered to be condensed expression of the axes themselves.
The metaphoric is the axis of selection, denotation and identity
whereas the metonymic is the axis of combination, connotation
and difference. All systems of signification revolve around these
two axes. Speech, for example, "implies a selection of certain
linguistic entities and their combination into linguistic units
of a higher degree of complexity." (Jakobson, 1971: 51) Within
these parameters, sacrifice aligns itself with the metaphoric
to the extent that it operates according to principles of substitution,
gathering meaning around a unificatory centre. Sacrifice, Julia
Kristeva suggests, mimics the institution of the symbolic order.
"It solemnizes the vertical dimension of the sign: the one
that leads from the thing that is left behind, or killed, to the
meaning of the word and transcendence." (Kristeva, 1982:
72-3) Metaphor becomes privileged through its association with
the paternal myth and the "name/law of the father" as
the keystone of signification. Similarly, Nancy Jay has shown
how sacrifice accomplishes what fatherhood, seen as a non-natural
conventional relation, cannot bring about, namely: a mediation
between the symbolic and the `natural' indexical bond that is
considered the prerogative of motherhood. (Jay, 1992) Consequently,
metonymy has come to be associated with the feminine and the messy
process of becoming that sacrifice attempts to transcend but which
the Christian tradition from time to time has nonetheless remembered.
metaphysics, the substantiality of the metaphoric remains the
ideal, the one, the goal to which the less substantial metonymic
processes of becoming are sacrificed. Christianity through its
complicity with metaphysics has, as Bataille observed, "made
the sacred substantial." (Bataille, 1985, 242) Through its
alliance with metaphysics, Christianity has forgotten that the
cross was meant to be a "stumbling block." As long as
it is interpreted according to the logic of sacrifice the cross
will remain the great symbol of the transcendence of the bodily
processes of becoming. In effect, it becomes just another sacrifice
even if it is the sacrifice par excellence. In sacrifice, Jay
explains, "death disorganizes the victim ( a product of sexual
reproduction) only to permit re-organization on another level,
that of eternal social structures." (Jay, 1992: 149) The
sacrificial interpretation of Christ's death consequently threatens
to obscure the meaning of the incarnation by sacrificing the particular
to the universal. Serrano's attempt to return the crucifix to
the bodily processes of becoming could be seen as an attempt to
retrieve the meaning of the incarnation. Just as the death of
Jesus can only be understood in the light of the resurrection,
neither should it be separated from the ethical orientation of
his whole life as a man for others. The gospels show that in practice
- breaking the Sabbath and dining with sinners -- this often involved
the transgression of the sacred law's interdictions. But if instead
the Christian revelation in Jesus is totalised in terms of his
sacrificial death, then the meaning of the incarnation is trivialised.
Far from challenging the status quo, the incarnation becomes absorbed
into it, in obedience to the law of the Father. Consequently,
the cross itself, far from being a stumbling block, becomes a
new principle of totalization, the ruling principle of Western
thing about such metaphysical principles or archai, however, is
that to the extent that they govern a structure, they escape its
structurality. (Hart, 1989: 83) Consequently, they also the blind-spot
of the system to the extent that they must simply be assumed.
Believed to guarantee the identity of the system, the ruling metaphysical
principle is not self-grounding but has its own foundation elsewhere.
So while the metaphysical concerns itself with identity, this
identity is itself "undecidable" from within the system.
From the point of view of the system then, the ruling principle
is structurally unsound. As a result, it serves to cover over
the flaws and cracks of the system. It is the metaphysical rug
under which the dirt is swept. Given time, it will eventually
come to take on the characteristics of the dirt and the cracks
that it was meant to hide. In a reversal of Psalm 118, the corner
stone of the entire symbolic order becomes itself the abject,
the blind spot in the system that the artist here displays for
our edification. Serrano returns this arche to its repressed and
forgotten element, the metonymic as expressed by the biological
processes that have been abjected by the symbolic order. Perhaps
in contemplating Piss Christ we can restore some to the
cross some of its subversive power.
I'm still waiting for a real artist, one truly dedicated to
his or her art, to create their work of art using a likeness
of Mohamed in a jar of pig piss. Now that would really be art.
Not being one to turn the other cheek myself, I’m hopeful
that some enterprising soul will start a site whereby contributions
can be made to build an enormous fund to defend the first person
to waste Andres Serrano and another fund for the first person
to seriously trash the Edward Tyler Nahem gallery. This could
be Living Art entitled “Art imitating Islamist life.”
This is not art. It is disgusting example of an insult to the
Son of God, yet Christians don't riot like the Muslims. It should
llberals are usually morally hollow-- and these artists put
crap together and call it Art!
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