Sunday, September 23, 2012


Andres Serrano's Piss Christ is coming to a Manhattan gallery this week. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League is already howling about it, and he and a number of other right-wing figures (scandal-plagued Staten Island congressman Michael Grimm, the Family Research Council) are claiming that President Obama's failure to condemn Piss Christ demonstrates a double standard, after his critical words regarding the film Innocence of Muslims. (We learn of these complaints, of course, from Fox News.)

Dennis G. at Balloon Juice points out a big difference between Piss Christ and Innocence of Muslims: Piss Christ is quite beautiful.

It's beautifully composed and beautifully lit. On aesthetic grounds, I'd also defend Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, which, yes, is bedecked with elephant dung and photos of genitalia, but also is visually striking in a way that reminds me of Haitian folk art.

I have mixed feelings about this art. It's significant work and it's somewhat immature in its desire to provoke. I have problems with the latter aspect of it -- but then I look at the work and it's visually compelling.

But the fact that it's meant to be visually compelling elevates it morally above Innocence of Muslims, which exists solely to tell Muslims, "The founder of your religion is an idiot, and you're an idiot if you follow him. Innocence of Muslims qualifies for free-speech protections in America, but it's meritless otherwise.

Still, it would be wrong if any of the filmmakers were in prison simply for making it. One was questioned regarding a probation violation, then released. No one else is in jail or up on charges. Terry Jones, who promoted the film and who burns Korans, is still a free man. The Breitbartniks can call this fascism all they want, but it doesn't come close.

I don't know why Innocence of Muslims and damage to Korans sets off riots in the Muslim world, while art that disrespects Christians doesn't. Angry Christians seem to limit themselves at this time to vandalizing the artworks themselves -- one tossed white paint on The Holy Virgin Mary, while others vandalized a print of Piss Christ:
... on Palm Sunday morning, four people in sunglasses aged between 18 and 25 entered the exhibition just after it opened at 11am. One took a hammer out of his sock and threatened the guards with it. A guard grabbed another man around the waist but within seconds the group managed to take a hammer to the plexiglass screen and slash the photograph with another sharp object, thought to be a screwdriver or ice-pick. They also smashed another work, which showed the hands of a meditating nun.
Is it inconceivable that someday Christians will react to such works with mass violence?

Virulent Islamophobes like Pam Geller argue that mob violence is an inherent part of Islam. But America had lots of riots in the late 1960s and early 1970s -- why not now?

Nicholas Kristof has one thought:
Upheavals are often more about demography than about religion: the best predictor of civil conflict is the share of a population that is aged 15 to 24. In the 19th century, when the United States brimmed with poorly educated young men, Protestants rioted against Catholics.
And maybe it's not just education -- maybe this was also true on college campuses when the baby boomers were in that age group.

This moment of rage will pass someday. Who knows what will provoke the next moment of rage? Could it be a perfect storm in the West -- the hollowing out of the middle class by a semi-Randian plutocracy, the rise of far angrier Christian demagogues than even the ones we've seen so far? Will the wingnuts be zealous defenders of free speech if art that's irreverent about Christians starts riots in the future?


Victor said...

Mr. Donohue, in case you didn't notice, Barack Obama is President of the USA, NOT a feckin' Art Critic!
Feckin' idjit!!!

And here's a reminder of just how feckin' crazy our countries Christians can be - from the documentary film, "Jesus Camp:"

'At one point Pastor Fischer equates the preparation she is giving children with the training of terrorists in the Middle East. "I want to see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam," she tells the camera. "I want to see them radically laying down their lives for the gospel, as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine."

Christian suicide-bombers?
May be coming soon - and not just to a theater near you.

Philo Vaihinger said...

Both are protected or neither is. And Piss Christ is massively more offensive. All the same, "redeeming social merit" was always vacuous bullshit.

Victor said...

Sorry, but I don't find "Piss Christ" the least bit offensive.

I haven't seen the stupid anti-Islam movie, and I wouldn't even if they paid me.

The Catholic Church has so commercialized Jesus Christ, that if I were him, I'd be pissed, too!

Palli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Palli said...

Philo, As with most art people don't really look. Viewers decide to read into what they are thinking without looking carefully enough to tell if their thoughts are on topic. For example, the cruxifix is a cheap plactic object in Serrano's photograph. How does that simple fact- a visual fact and a deliberate choice of the artist- change the conversation with the work?

There is no art, there is no craft, in the anti-Islamic prpaganda movie. The is no respect for the medium even.

Belvoir said...

I'd just love some idea of why the Balloon Juice writers are bringing up "Piss Christ" again over twenty years later when no one else is.

Was it something like, some reporter brought it up and Obama supported free expression? And wingnuts are seizing on that? I have no idea, this "story" seems nowhere at all tonight.

And I don't care what anyone thinks of a 25 year old mediocre artwork. So boring, no one cares.

Philo Vaihinger said...

Belvoir, the religious right is bringing up Piss Christ all over the place.

Their complaint is actually dual.

First, the standard of what is offensive differs as between Christians and Muslims, the latter counting as offensive what the former would shrug off as lame or in some cases even reverent and respectful of their religion.

Second, even what Christians find most offensive is allowed and defended on First Amendment grounds while what is offensive to Muslims at all only because of their much more inclusive criteria are denounces as not enjoying such protection, or as something that ought not to enjoy it.

They are right both times.

Philo Vaihinger said...

Steve, would a Koran bound in gold and stewing in a clear plastic vat of urine, perhaps called "Piss Koran," strike you as equally beautiful and artistically significant?

Thing the National Endowment of the Arts should commission one and ship it around the country in a museum-mobile?

Steve M. said...

Depends on what it looked like.

By the way, there's apparently one mufti who says it's permissible to write the Koran in urine.

Tom239 said...

I like Piss Pope better.