SACRIFICE, PISS CHRIST AND LIBERAL EXCESS
I of Sacrifice, Piss Christ and Liberal
Excess, Damien Casy argues that Andres
Serrano's Piss Christ
is a meritorious art. In the current issue, Michael Casey, Anthony
Fisher, OP, and Haydan Ramsay argue that it isn't. This article
was originally published in
Law, Text, Culture.
In the latest academic apologia
for the antics of bad boy photographer Andres Serrano, Damien
Casey attempts to portray him as not only a great liberal artist,
but a great Christian theologian too. One suspects Serrano is
laughing up his sleeve at the ease with which such ‘post-modern'
thinking can be grafted on to the support of his iconoclasm. Casey
rehearses some of the standard liberal excuses though with no
fresh argument and then settles down to some more novel points
concerning theology, Scripture and society. We will give some
treatment of his standard liberal case first, then turn to Casey's
more original contributions, and finally comment on the current
state of the law regarding this issue.
Casey, like other liberal defenders of work like Serrano's, presents
the issue in terms of a clash between the interests of artists
in freedom of expression on the one hand, and the hurt such works
may cause to a section of the community on the other: what Christians
are said to object to is the 'offensiveness' of Piss Christ.
However, this is only part of the problem. Ethically speaking,
what was at issue in the Serrano affair was not simply offensiveness
but ‘blasphemy,' the quite different wrong of speaking against
God or the Sacred, or ridiculing things consecrated to God or
held sacred. Blasphemy may occur even if no Christian is offended
by the act in question (e.g. because no-one knows), and even if
the agent firmly believes his act to be directed towards a religious
end. This is precisely what makes blasphemy such a fascinating
concept for contemporary philosophers, and not an out-moded, 'medieval'
some philosophers (e.g. Feinberg 1985) believe that acts are never
morally wrong unless they adversely affect the interests of some
human individual(s), either harming them, or at least causing
them serious offence. And for these philosophers, the only wrong
in blasphemy, if any, is that it offends others. However, more
contemporary thinkers, including contemporary Aristotelians, Thomists,
Kantians, do not require a victim for there to be a moral evil:
self-regarding, trivial, slothful, wasteful, cruel, or demeaning
acts may offend or harm no one apart from the agent herself and
still be wrong. Naturally, the public display of blasphemous or
sacrilegious works will generally be hurtful to believers; indeed,
the fact that such art-work is shocking to ‘ordinary sensibilities'
is generally regarded as one of its principal virtues by its creators
and promoters: this kind of art only works because it hurts. However,
our point is that, contrary to Casey's suggestion, hurtfulness
to believers does not exhaust the meaning of blasphemy. At least
three other dimensions mattered in the display of Serrano's Piss
accounts of the practice of religion which take it seriously on
its own terms view it as a necessary part of the fulfilment of
the person rather like aesthetic expression and experience, in
fact. Thus in attacking religion the blasphemer is also attacking
a crucial aspect of the human good, demeaning human dignity and
undermining human community through that choice. Moreover, as
well as offending believers and violating religion, blasphemy
is an attack on God and/or the Sacred something unthinkable to
theists, unreasonable for agnostics (for whom a certain caution
or respect for God-as-not-impossible is appropriate) and senseless
for atheists (who, in any case, generally acknowledge ‘the
Sacred' in some sense even as they reject a personal God). Finally,
in blasphemous acts the agent not only attacks other things but
also un-makes himself. Blasphemy, like other moral wrongs, has
grave reflexive effects on character; it makes the agent offensive,
irreligious and a hater of God, and this will have serious effects
on his activities, identity and relationships.
supporters of Serrano, such as Casey, draw attention to the ‘originality'
and symbolic significance of his work, and characterize Christians
who oppose it as backward and philistine. Casey claims that the
photograph questions boundaries between the sacred and the profane,
thereby ‘enacting what it represents;’ this ‘threatens
the identity of conservative Christians' who try to exclude it
from the public. However, to question a central intellectual distinction
a work of art must do something more than use a traditional gesture
for insulting God, attack religion or offend believers. No critic
of stature has suggested this photograph constitutes a profound
intellectual investigation, a realignment of boundaries, whatever
emotions it conjures up and titillates. Secondly, the work was
criticized by Christians of all complexions, as well as by those
of other faiths and people of no faith. None of these even vaguely
registered a threat to their identity; indeed, one of the work's
few good effects was to clarify believers' sense of identity and
common, interdenominational and interfaith, purpose. Thirdly,
this was not religious people interfering with public debate but
the majority of the community protesting in anger over the mis-use
of the community's public space by a notorious artist and a self-appointed
arts ‘elite.' Casey seems not to have realised that for
believers this was an assault upon their God, their divine brother,
an offence from their perspective at least as great as offences
against persons or property. In calling for an end to the display
of this blasphemy in their public gallery people were not asking
that their fragile sense of identity or boundaries be left undisturbed,
but that their God be respected, their funds withdrawn from what
they believed to be shameful and corrupting, and an end to their
unwilling collaboration in public invitations to see what is holy
approach also includes a new slant on the liberal case against
mainstream Christians; he invokes something called the ‘pluralist
Church,' and challenges the Christian community with ‘intolerance'
towards their own. He also criticizes some Church authority(ies)
for usurping Christians' religious symbols. We are not privy to
Casey's peculiar ecclesiology, but surely the claim that Christian
and other religious leaders leading their people to oppose sacrilege
and blasphemy is ‘intolerant' and ‘authoritarian'
towards their flocks is absurd. If observation of the ‘First
Table' of the Decalogue is not a solemn duty of Christian leaders,
calling for clear and strong leadership, then what is?
claim is that most religious believers have been blinkered and
conditioned and so have not recognized that this photograph reveals
a ‘genuine and insightful religiosity' and is actually a
‘prophetic' work that only Serrano, Casey and a few other
like-minded observers of Christianity have realized. Casey even
makes the astonishing claim that Piss Christ is ‘profoundly
religious' and ‘speaks to the very heart of Christianity.'
Hyperbole aside, can he really mean this? As the Serrano affair
unfolded, the artist repudiated his earlier claims that his art
is simply colourful and that it is deliberately shocking asserting
instead that, far from intending to scandalize, his goal all along
had been to increase the devotion of his fellow Christians by
helping them identify more closely with Christ in his pain, suffering
and humiliation. Whether this revisionism was entirely candid
on Serrano's part might be doubted, but, as some of the artist's
defenders observed, Jesus very likely did lose control of his
bladder in the crucifixion and was probably ‘pissed on'
by the Roman soldiers. The photograph might be said merely to
allude to this and to invite our compassionate engagement with
the real man. But do the sacred and the venerated really work
in this way? This is not the place to explore at length the implications
of works such as Otto on the numinous, Eliade on the sacred and
the profane, Turner on the liminal, Douglas on sacred symbols,
or Gadamer on mimesis and anamnesis in art. But what can be said
briefly is that none of these classic studies of the anthropology
of religious symbols would lend credence to the kind of ‘restoration'
or ‘enhancement' proposed by Casey in his apologia.
liberal ploy has been to characterize those who disagree with
public display of Serrano's photographs as irrationally caught
up in a ‘dead white male' time warp, prissily avoiding the
confronting insights of modernity. On this front Casey argues
that an exhibition of the work of Rembrandt taking place at the
Victorian National Gallery would have benefited from the continuation
of the Serrano exhibition; like Serrano, Rembrandt is dealing
with ‘the ambiguity of the abject and its relation to the
sacred.' The comparison between Serrano's photographs and Rembrandt's
moving and human images is comical, if not grotesque; the idea
that Serrano can teach us something important about the relation
between God and man surely both. Pondering the relation between
Christ's human life, suffering and death and his divine nature,
and the meaning of all of this for ourselves, has been part of
Christian tradition and enquiry at least since Chalcedon; what
radical new insights might Serrano have to offer here? We should
recall that at the same time Piss Christ was exhibited,
Melbourne hosted another Serrano exhibition featuring:
photographs of a woman urinating in a man's mouth, a woman
squatting naked before a horse as she masturbates it, a clergyman
gagged with a studded leather collar etc. Such a range of
professional interests hardly suggest deep and well-informed
theological and philosophical reflection or the expressive
genius of the Old Master.
Casey plunges ahead, suggesting this is ‘good religious
art,' an exploration of the theology of icons, and an `Hegelian'
reversal of our expectations about the divine so that God can
more clearly be manifested. It is difficult to know what to make
of this. On the Hegelian point, suffice to say that doing the
‘rude and unexpected' is a cheap understanding of that philosopher's
dialectic. While making a Crucifixion scene in which Jesus had
lost control of his bodily functions might not be sacrilege, immersing
a crucifix in urine can only be a profanation according to the
standards of the culture and religion of which it is an artefact,
and photographing and displaying such a deed can only be a blasphemy
in that culture. Hegel would not have treated the ethical life
of a community in so cavalier a fashion, especially after the
community had clearly spoken its preference in overwhelming numbers.
On the point about icons, if this work is to be regarded as pious
and devout, can anything be impious? If even this work is an icon,
what on earth is not?
some persist in the idea that God and religion need the honesty
and courage of the Serranos of this world. Casey quotes Serrano's
defence of the work as ‘redefining and personalizing' his
own relationship with God. Is this tongue in cheek? In Melbourne
at the time of the controversy Serrano said:
that work as an attempt to reduce and simplify a lot of the
ideas and images that I had been doing up until that time. I
didn't do it to be provocative, I did it because damn, the colours
would look good, you know. [clapping and cheering] I mean, sometimes
I just feel like what I do has the simplest answers, but they're
not good enough. People want more of a story and I try to give
them a story, but sometimes I have to say: look, you're reading
too much into this.
hardly suggests a humble attempt to convert or ;redefine and personalize'
his relationship to God.
A more serious criticism is that Christians have lost the dramatic
meaning of the central event of Christianity. For Casey, not the
Resurrection but the Crucifixion domesticated their faith and
lost contact with the human suffering which Christ came to share
believes Christians have sanitized, ‘quarantined,' their
central symbol. However, it is a radical misunderstanding of the
anthropology of symbols and sacramentals to imagine that by adding
‘grime' to them the artist will help make them more relevant
and so devotional. Ironically, reinventing the image according
to a pattern less ‘sanitized' than that received in the
tradition may do the exact opposite. A crucifix certainly expresses
muck, and will not do so if worn as costume jewellery; but neither
will it do so if simply smeared with muck.. To think a religious
object can be extracted from its context and ‘purified,'
‘restored' or ‘improved' by doing to it something
unthinkable among adherents of that tradition, is condescension
of the kind we rightly abhor in white Australians, Canadians or
Americans who seek to ‘improve' on Aboriginal artefacts.
second section of his paper, Casey makes it clear he regards those
who object to the Piss Christ as not only deluded but
dishonest: ‘there seems to be an aura of the disingenuous
about any accusation of blasphemy.' It is a serious charge. A
page earlier, however, he admits that ‘Piss Christ is indeed
blasphemous to the extent that it subverts the sacrificial interpretation
of Christ's death.' But if its critics would just open their eyes
and minds they would discover that it is good-blasphemous not
bad-blasphemous: the blasphemy is acceptable because it ‘prophetically'
`calls to mind something perhaps even more essential and original
to Christianity.' Now just what that prophetic ‘something'
is, is never made quite clear. Instead we read: In accordance
with the logic of sacrifice anything overly ambiguous or permeable
that defies the principle of non-contradiction becomes the excluded
middle. The abject are those things that blur the neat distinction
between subject and object and consequently threaten the substantiality
we may, we cannot make head or tail of such passages, and there
are many of them in Casey's article. The word ‘abject',
however, occurs quite a bit here, and seems to function as a hooray
word, as opposed to ‘sacrifice,' a boo word. On side with
‘the abject' (hooray!) are `abominations' and ‘mess,'
heterology, powerlessness, permeability, and the ‘many'
mediæval mystics who thought of Jesus as a woman giving
birth; on ‘the sacrificial' side (boo!) are sovereignty,
homophobia, ‘ossified' doctrines and dogmas, the clean and
the impermeable. Later Casey returns to this dichotomy, comparing
mainstream Christianity, which has erroneously made the cross
the great symbol of sacrifice and transcendence, with the more
profound Christology of Serrano. This artist-theologian tries
‘to return the crucifix to the bodily processes of becoming,'
and thereby ‘to retrieve the meaning of the incarnation
Serrano returns to this arche its repressed and forgotten element,
the metonymic as expressed by the biological processes that have
been abjected by the symbolic order.' In its sacrificial theology
mainstream Christianity does not understand its central symbol,
the cross; only Serrano and Casey do, and ‘an elite' who
have 'retained and lived' the true anti-sacrificial interpretation
of the crucifixion.
how does Casey justify this rather grandiose claim? In one of
the few falsifiable propositions in the paper he assures us that
‘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.' Really? The most recent comprehensive literature
reviews by Peter Head (1995) and Roger Beckwith (1995) demonstrate
that the whole New Testament, and not just the Letter to the Hebrews,
is replete with sacrificial language, imagery and theology. They
demonstrate conclusively that:
Mark, in Matthew, in Luke and Acts, and in John and 1 John,
the death of Jesus is described, sometimes by himself and sometimes
by others, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, as
sacrificial. Thus, in the Synoptic Gospels, he speaks at the
Last Supper of ‘my blood of the covenant' (or ‘the
new covenant in my blood') ‘which is to be shed for many'
(or `for you'), Matthew's version adding ‘for the remission
of sins.' He is spoken of in John (and also, incidentally in
1 Pet 1:19 and Rev 5:6-10; 13:8) a the slain ‘lamb' of
God, who by his precious blood ‘takes away the sin of
the world,' a lamb being an animal used in various sacrifices,
in sin offerings, guilt offerings, burnt offerings and peace
offerings, as well as the Passover sacrifice. In Peter, again,
Christ is said to be a sacrifice ‘without blemish,' that
is, without the moral blemish of sin, not the physical blemishes
which disqualified sacrifices; and we ourselves are said to
be ‘sprinkled; with his blood (1:2,19). Similarly, in
John we are said to be ‘cleansed' by his blood ‘from
sin' (1:7,9), the language of sprinkling and cleansing being
drawn from the sacrificial ritual, and perhaps from the Covenant
sacrifice of Exodus 24, also alluded to at the Last Supper.
This is to recall only some of the more explicit passages, from
various books of which a sacrificial interpretation of Christ's
death is given.
Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass Casey may
well believe that ‘when I use a word' or a symbol like a
cross ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more
nor less.' Perhaps he would assert that his claim about sacrifice
in the New Testament was not an exegetical claim (since texts
have no intrinsic meaning) but rather a creative reading' of the
text through the looking glass of contemporary cultural anthropology.
Yet even a scant acquaintance with the classic studies in the
anthropology of religion by Edward Tylor, William Robertson Smith,
James Frazer, Henri Hubert, Marcel Mauss, E. E. Evans-Pritchard
and Luc de Heusch, or the more recent standard works of Barth
(1961), Chilton (1992), Daly (1978), Hengel (1977), Yerkes (1952)
and Young (1975 & 1979), or even the more controversial but
currently influential work of René Girard, all suggest
very different conclusions to Casey's. All these writers insist,
for instance, upon the centrality of the sacrifice idea to Christianity
and the close relation, not opposition, of this concept to ‘the
abject'. Time and again one is left wondering: does Casey even
know the standard literature in this area?
related to Casey's untenable contrast between sacrifice and abjection
is another contrast, between a (true) kenotic Christ stripped
of all power and a (false) concept of Christ as a divine master.
This is not the place to rehearse the complexities and tensions
in ideas like power and service or divestment and glorification
as understood in traditional and contemporary Christology: suffice
it to say that, at least since J S Whale's classic work in the
early 1960s, no simplistic either-or, such as Casey seems to require,
has featured in serious theology. This is no mere debating point:
Casey's central claim is that Jesus' identification with ‘the
poor and the oppressed and all those we treat like shit' relies
upon the Crucified being imaged in ignominy, covered in excrement.
No Pantocrators here!
not reflect for long on Casey's powerless ‘fellow sufferer'
Christ to realise that this craving represents a radical distortion
of relationship. ‘Misery loves company,' certainly, but
we do not take this observation as a counsel and set about causing
misery to give the miserable some companions. We look to others
to understand and respond to our pains, to do something to cure
or at least palliate them. We do not want the dentist to feel
our toothache with us: we want him to remove it, kindly, but with
a certain detachment too. We do not want our counsellor to suffer
disorientation, disintegration and despair with us: we want her
to help reorient, reintegrate and give hope to us, again with
some objectivity. In prayer we do not petition a fellow patient
for a cure, but a physician.
Curiously for a writer in a legal journal, Casey seems to be completely
uninterested in the legal action to which the Serrano controversy
gave rise. He recalls that Archbishop Pell sought an injunction
from the Supreme Court of Victoria to restrain the National Gallery
of Victoria from publicly displaying Piss Christ and
says little more about the law thereafter. However, reflecting
upon that legal action may help clarify just what was at issue
in the dispute as it unfolded.
The Archbishop of Melbourne sought an injunction on the grounds
that the public display of this photograph would constitute a
breach of Victoria's Summary Offences Act, as well as the common
law misdemeanour of blasphemous libel. The Act makes it an offence
for any person to exhibit or display an indecent or obscene figure
or representation in a public place.
law treats as criminal blasphemy every publication which, beyond
the decent limits of legitimate difference of opinion, treats
Christianity in an offensive, scurrilous and insulting manner
calculated to outrage the feelings of believers and sympathisers.
In making these offences the grounds of his application, the Archbishop
was in effect seeking to restrain an apprehended breach of the
criminal law with civil remedies. This is something that the courts
are generally very reluctant to countenance, for the reasons set
forth most famously in Peek's Case, and the Archbishop was no
doubt aware his action was `a long shot', but one he thought worth
are two elements to the offence of blasphemous libel: a scurrilous
insult to Christians and their beliefs beyond the bounds of what
is generally accepted as decent difference of opinion, and the
publication of that insult. There are two things which it is important
to note here. First, blasphemous libel does not involve ‘censorship'
in the sense of excluding certain opinions from being expressed
in the public realm. As early as 1840 it was held that the offence
of blasphemy lies not in making rational arguments against particular
religious doctrines but in the incitement of 'wild and improper
feelings.' In 1883 it was held that no offence is committed by
the simple profession of a religious or irreligious opinion: blasphemy
required a tendency in a work 'to shock, outrage, or ridicule'
believers or their faith.
in 1917 reiterated this, and emphasised 'vilification, ridicule
or irreverence' as the requirement for establishing blasphemous
libel. In the words of Mr Justice Phillimore from an earlier case,
'a man is free to speak and to teach what he pleases as to religious
matters' but were a person to make a ‘scurrilous attack'
on common religious doctrines 'in a public place where passers-by
may have their ears offended, and where young persons may come,
he will render himself liable to the law of blasphemous libel.'
blasphemy is an offence of strict liability. The only intention
that has to be established is an intention to publish, and clearly
a decision by an art gallery to publicly exhibit a blasphemous
work manifests such an intention. Just as we argued above regarding
the ethics of blasphemy, the good or bad intentions of the author
are irrelevant in determining at law whether the impugned publication
constitutes a blasphemous libel. Serrano's intention in producing
this photograph and the National Gallery's intention in displaying
it remain unclear, but in the eyes of the law is does not matter
whether their intention was to shock, to revere or simply to display
some nice colors. The crucial thing, from the law's point of view,
is the effect the publication of this photo has. As Lord Scarman
stated in the most important recent case in this area, 'the character
of the words published matters; but not the motive of the author
string of blasphemy cases makes this much clear: had this case
proceeded it would have been very difficult for any judge or jury
to conclude that a photograph of a sacred Christian symbol immersed
in excrement was anything other than objectively blasphemous.
end, however, the case was decided on the principle that the court
should not employ its civil jurisdiction to provide an injunction
as a means of preventing the commission of a crime. This leaves
open the question of the basis, nature and scope of the offences
of blasphemous libel and obscenity. One thing the Serrano affair
made abundantly clear was that the reasons for such a law remain
as compelling today as at any time in the past. The protection
of individual feelings, civil peace, and commonly accepted standards
of civilized behaviour (which themselves demand respect for God,
religion and morality) necessitate the continuation of this offence
just as surely as they require proper laws against the vilification
of ethnic and religious minorities even if these reasons fail
to exhaust the evil of blasphemy as understood in ethics and theology.
The case of Pell v National Gallery of Victoria serves to highlight
the need to extend to Christians the anti-discrimination and anti-vilification
protections increasingly being extended to other minorities, and
possibly the need to extend to other religions the protection
of the anti-blasphemy laws.
people have opposed anti-vilification laws as a totalitarian restriction
on their freedom of expression; commentators such as Casey in
the wake of the Serrano affair have been given to hysterical claims
about the spectre of censorship and declining artistic freedom.
In fact, however, the outcome of this affair represents a triumph
for tolerance and mutual respect in our society. Whereas Christianity
and the values of ordinary people were once considered fair game
by the cultural and artistic arriere-garde, there is now a little
more sensitivity and respect. This can only be a good thing for
all those who sincerely value authentic tolerance and wish to
see the expansion of its realm. Serrano was something of a turning-point
in Australian public affairs. After Serrano we need high-quality
and accessible debate in ethics, theology and law, not the fashionable
but unintelligible responses of an increasingly irrelevant academic
Things like this make me want to become a Muslin so I could
feel good about taking my feelings out on the S.O.B who claimed
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