The Laws of Nature

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Defending Serrano

Andres Serrano
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland
Chapter 1, Section 5:   Defending Serrano

OK, so we’ve discussed Serrano’s work on this blog before, but this time it’s worth revisiting. Art theory is one of those disciplines that sometimes seems like an intellectual cloud to me. The reason I began this blog several years ago was to understand art theory/art history a little better. I did this by reviewing books one section at a time and asking you readers to discuss them with me. You did a great job and I learned a lot! Those years were important to my present understanding. But, there’s always more to learn.

What I learned from you readers a while ago was how much most of you dislike Serrano’s work, particularly Piss Christ. So, what defense does Freeland offer for this work?
She cites critic Lucy Lippard who wrote an article in Art in America in 1990.  Lippard’s analysis  of Serrano is based upon (1) his work’s formal and material properties; (2) its content (the thought or meaning it expressed); and (3) its context, or place in the Western art tradition.

I’m in! These three criteria are the basis for defining art.

So, Piss Christ is actually a photograph (Cibachrome)  - a large one  (60”x40”) - made using Serrano’s own urine (that part doesn’t impress me). Lippard’s adjective-saturated description of this work makes it sound great and offers a somewhat palatable interpretation. It represents rebellion and transforms the iconic crucifix by placing it within a different context (urine).

OK, I’ll buy that as well.

But, as Lippard extends her argument to materials, I waiver a little. She claims that because Serrano’s cultural heritage is Honduran and Afro-Cuban, his Catholic beliefs include body fluids as a source of religious power and strength. I’m not Catholic, so I’ll have to take her word for it. So, she seems to think that the urine soaked crucifix represents the artist’s condemnation of the way that culture pays only lip service to a religion without truly endorsing its values. Really? Well, maybe.  Serrano did claim that his work denounced religious institutions that have been commercialized and cheapened and not the religion itself.

Maybe I can believe this. And maybe Lippard’s defense of Serrano’s work is pretty convincing, even if the work seems repulsive. But, who says art has to be attractive?

Next time, Freeland discusses Goya as Serrano’s precursor.

What are your thoughts?

6 comments:

Celeste Bergin said...

Hi Katharine...you wrote: "So, she seems to think that the urine soaked crucifix represents the artist’s condemnation of the way that culture pays only lip service to a religion without truly endorsing its values".

I would say that that seems especially accurate! It is bizarre in very poor places the Catholic church can have all manner of sculptures, gold, chalices..stained class etcetera.... while the people in the same area are hungry. Makes no sense! I hope the new Pope will straighten everything out! haha!! I really do!

William Cook said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William Cook said...

I'm struggling to articulate my admiration for Serrano's piece. I think it's brilliant if only for phenomenological reasons--I've never met the guy. He may very well be a prick, I don't know.

My take is that isn't throwing the crucifix into a jar of piss what we all do to Jesus while he is in the act of forgiving us--while he is being tortured? No body's doing what he taught.

For all the Christians I know, I don't know many actual followers of Christ--people doing what he clearly taught (that the kingdom of God is within you, and you can access it through [single eye] meditation).

Too many egos--too much arguing--too much hedonistic fun down here below--anything but seeking God first. Piss on that.

Don't get me started on the art world and egos. Even art theory is affronted at Serrano's piece. Everyone argues as to whether or not it's art in the first place.

I think it's hilarious watching everyone get all puffed and indignant over Serrano's piece when we're all so guilty of this depravity. Such a simple statement but so powerful.

Katharine A. Cartwright said...

Hi Celeste - point well taken!

Hi William - it seems that Serrano's work sparks controversy and debate and that type of reaction is what keeps "art" relevant. Humans have varied beliefs and I suspect that Serrano's art speaks more to the Western societies than Eastern. However, he seems to challenge the inconsistency between our stated beliefs and our actions. That could apply anywhere at any time.

Margaret Ryall said...

I am always fascinated by writers interpretations of intent in artmaking. The writing moves intent way beyond any thought the artist initially brought to bear on the work. I sometimes think that writers actually seek to "do one better" than the artist.

Katharine A. Cartwright said...

Hi Margaret, I think you may be right in a lot of cases! After all, the job of an art critic or historian is to provide us with an analysis and there isn't a whole lot of data in that process. Yes, they do have the data provided by history and sometimes by the artist him/herself. But, even that is filtered and not necessarily the "truth." I can't imagine what sort of motivations and thoughts someone else would assign to my work!