Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia FreelandChapter 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?