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On Second Thought:
Seduced and Abandoned by Serrano

Dare an artist be unsure about Andres Serrano? Our current belief system makes us feel that artistic freedom is being challenged by the attacks on him. Yet we know about yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater, so our feelings might say that this man's works stepped over the line -- unnecessarily. Did "Piss Christ" really push the boundaries of making art and reaching people, or did it make us artists seem even more elitist in the eyes of the world?

Serrano says he does not care about the audience. "My 'crusade' is a private one. I need to wrestle with my own demons, not anyone else's." (Interviewing Joel-Peter Witkin in Blind Spot Photography, www.blindspot.com, Issue 2) Here's the point: how unconcerned about people's sensibilities should an artist be?

Ever since the Romantic Movement in the 1800's, "frappez le bourgeoisie," or "whacking the middle class" has been seen as the avant-garde artist's role. Is this still the artist's calling? In the past, the artist's assault on sensibilities had a two-pronged purpose. Although Manet shocked people with the frontality and flatness of his "Olympia," his piece advanced both art and culture. Art was moved forward to a more focused appreciation of paint as paint and of plastic space. Culture was asked to look for reality in the phenomena of the world rather than in the myths proclaimed by Academic painting. How does "Piss Christ" fare under this analysis of breaking the constraints of art and culture?

Artistically, it doesn't go far. Even though the critic David Levi Strauss suggested that it "is really quite beautiful," many pieces are beautiful, some are called trite. A monochromatic, low-keyed chiaroscuro may be pleasing, but it does not really whack anything artistically.

Is there then a cultural breakthrough? It's hard to pick anything really breakthrough here except shock. What if a symbol other than Christ on the cross had been used? How about Jesse Jackson's picture? Or the symbol for woman? No, the piece is a superficial whack at the middle class, with little redeeming power. It is a wrestle with Serrano's demons, flippantly exposed. Other demon-wrestling artists, Goya, Blake, Bacon for example, did it in a way that deepened art and deepened people's sensibility. While we don't want to go back to those times, can't we can move toward the future in a less superficial way?

Some group "Piss Christ" and similar work as "Art On the Edge," for their breaking of taboo. This seems barely and only superficially true. Why pick such easy taboos, and why pander to the ordinary person's view of artists as screw-ups who have nothing but elite contempt for the common?

One of Serrano's works in the "Taboo: Repression & Revolt in Modern Art," (Galerie St. Etienne, New York,1998) was "The Unknown Christ," a 30"x 40" Cibachrome. This work is a true Madonna moment. Within an orange-toned monochromatic space, a woman whose black, low-cut dress seems to be falling off, slouches back, gazing up at what appears to be a skinned pig carcass hanging down from upper left corner. Very sensational in an easy way and designed to attract attention. Can we believe that this art merely "exorcises [Serrano's] own demons?" Goya had better demons, Is it fair to say that the work is shallow and trivial, merely sensational?

Do Serrano's Cibachromes have any of the quality of Chartres, of Goya, of de Kooning, where color and form remain to tell us that something significant was once there, even if it not there in the same way for many today? The yellow color? The scale? The materials? Anything here that gives weight to "Piss Christ?"

Maybe I'm overreacting, but as an artist I do not want to alienate decent people for no reason, to "bite off my nose to spite my face" as my folks used to say. I believe in opening up new vistas for myself, for art, and for others -- to "frappez le bourgeoisie" in that way. I don't want to upset people just to prove that I am an artist and they're not. Andres Serrano is a poor poster boy for artistic freedom under attack. We artists have important things to do as people who live with others in a commonweal. We need to fight for freedom, not just for ourselves, but to expand, to "whack" the arts and our culture in an expansive way. I don't think we want to be narrow and elitist, performing mainly for the art world. Just as there are good and bad test cases for minority discrimination fights, there are good and bad test cases for artistic freedom. Perhaps it's best that we forget Serrano and fight for something really moving.

(David Levi Strauss quoted in Art Since 1960, Michael Archer, Thames and Hudson, London, 1997, p.197)

©1999 Robert Stanley