While art can be utilized in an infinite amount of ways, it is of highest importance when it causes disruption in societal norms. As you can imagine, the 60-by-40-inch art piece by Andres Serrano called Immersion (Piss Christ) infuriated the right-wing legislators during the time of the “culture wars.” The term “culture war” is used to define a polarized period in the 1980s and 1990s in which people tried to define what being American entails. Issues that made defining Americans so difficult included: gun policies, separating the church from the state, drug use, censorship, homosexuality and so forth. During this time, politicians asserted their personal opinions on the public, as they opposed the National Endowment for the Arts (also referred to as NEA) because they supported controversial and obscene works that politicians deemed inappropriate for the public viewers.
Serrano’s works are known to elicit strong reactions from the public, whether they be appreciative or critical. In his piece Immersion (Piss Christ), Serrano submerged a small crucifix in a vat of his own urine, and took a photo of it. To create this artwork, Serrano was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Created in 1965, the NEA works as an independent federal agency to promote Americans’ participation in the arts and it supports the people’s creative development. As this piece was supported by taxpayers’ money, the response it elicited was very controversial as the senators of the time found it to be blasphemous. In response, Senators Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms created a law to make the NEA consider “general standards of decency” when awarding grants to artists like Serrano. Furthermore, Serrano garnered negative attention from the public as he received a myriad of hate letters, along with death threats.
As Serrano admitted to The Guardian in an interview, “[he] wasn’t trying to get anything across,” as Immersion (Piss Christ) reflects his work, “not only as an artist, but as a Christian.”
Fueled by this polarized period, senators debated censoring Serrano’s work, but ultimately it remained along with the senator’s new law for the NEA. Despite this ruling, Serrano has only had a few museum shows in America, and one of those viewings was for a private museum. In an interview with Interview Magazine, Serrano asserts that he believes that American museums, “don’t want to show me because I’m too controversial – whatever that means.” In contrast with the States, Serrano elucidates that he has had about two dozen museum shows in Europe, and in France he was awarded the insignia of the Chevalier of the Order and Arts and Letters, which is akin to a knighthood.
That being said, while the European museums openly display his work, he still receives scorn from the public for his work. Namely, the devout Catholic members of France vandalized Immersion (Piss Christ) during a museum showing in 2011. After this vandalism, the museum shut down for a few days, only to open again to display the damage so the public can, as the museum put it, “appreciate for themselves the violence of the acts.” Even though they received death threats, the museum still opened, but was forced to close their doors after 800 protesters held demonstrations just outside their doors a few days later.
Aside from this single instance, Serrano’s Immersion (Piss Christ) has been targeted by infuriated religious groups multiple times since its creation. While these groups have a right to their own opinion, Serrano has this same right, and while his pieces may spark a grand amount of controversy, stifling the work of an artist will lead to a culture that is controlled solely by the government and large corporations.
Even in the land of free speech, being able to speak freely can cause societal rejection. Moreover, even with free speech, not all complaints or criticisms of our country’s economy, political leaders or large corporations are heard. Worse yet, even if they are heard, the chances of these complaints eliciting any change is miniscule. Being a cultural hub, museums allow free speech through an artist’s creative expression. While works featured in a museum may be obscure, the public is allowed to derive their own meanings from different pieces. Controversial and radical works, akin to Immersion (Piss Christ) (1987), directly defies the America that politicians wanted to create at the time of its creation.
Allowing the government to control the cultural works that citizens are allowed to see creates a society in which people’s culture is nothing more than the products they buy and the media they consume. Moreover, limiting what artists are allowed to show the public directly denies the people of their right to free speech. Although works may be controversial from a religious, political or ethical standpoint, it makes these works all the more important. As mentioned earlier, an artwork that is visually pleasing is good, but one that is controversial is relevant and necessary. Works by provocateurs create a conversation and bring attention to topics that are usually taboo in certain aspects of society
As mentioned earlier, while Serrano was not censored, the fact that he is not often featured in American museums shows how American voices are silenced through governmental influence. To add to that, the aforementioned law implemented on the NEA is another way in which culture is stifled by the government as it denies provocateurs their right to free expression. In that way, while Serrano and other provocateurs are heavily scrutinized by the public, the government should be equally – if not more – criticized and criminalized for their attempts to silence the voices of Americans. While Americans believe they live in the land of the free, the hypocrisy of that statement is that the voices that are heard are the ones that the government allows to be heard. Thus, the term free speech and expression is only permitted when it does not defy the government’s will.