Of Piss Christs and Cannibals: The “Art” Debate Continues
posted at 1:12 pm on October 8, 2010 by Diane Suffern
The word “piss” was considered vulgar and unacceptable in my parents’ home. While its place on the Obscenity Intensity Scale was decidedly lower than, say, the s-word, we knew we’d get a sound lashing if we dared to say it. (There was reason to believe my mother could even read our very thoughts, so, we…didn’t.) You can thus imagine the prurient interest I had at the tender age of eight when the Piss Christ controversy erupted. Oh, the rending of garments and lamentations of concerned Christian women I saw on television! As Joe would say, it was a big effing deal.
Interestingly, even within my conservative Christian home, I don’t remember my parents ever using the word “blasphemy,” even “obscenity,“ concerning the piece. I do remember, however, being introduced to The National Endowment for the Arts and the term “taxpayer subsidy.” I knew the word and work was offensive to many people, but more offensive was the public funding of something wholly subjective as another’s definition of art.
Fast-forward to 2010, where such offensive iconography is replete within our culture and fatwas are routinely issued over images of a man in a turban. Yes, we’re quite used to this sort of conflict and Christians are acutely aware of the deference shown to, specifically, Islamic sensibilities over their own. While some depictions of Christ still raise hackles, we’ve grown accustomed to it and, as Americans, we support the freedom to say things we may personally find deplorable. We don’t kill people for offending us. We’d just prefer not to pay for it, thank you very much.
Enter Enrique Chagoya’s 12-panel collage, The Misadventures of Romantic Cannibals, displayed at taxpayer-funded Loveland Museum Gallery in Loveland, Colorado. The work includes various luminaries and historic figures spliced together with pop culture images and references. The most controversial panel depicts a Christ-like figure (with a female body) engaging in (non-visible) oral sex and the word “orgasm” next to his head.
Some in the community are a bit, well, peeved. One Loveland local engaged in a sort of performance art, reenacting Christ’s “turning over tables” scene—only with a crowbar. Fox News reports:
Kathleen Folden, 56, of Kalispell, Mont., was arrested Wednesday and accused of damaging the the 12-panel lithograph, “The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals.” […]
Witnesses told the Reporter-Herald that Folden entered the Loveland Museum Gallery, used a crowbar to break glass over the art and ripped the print.
Mark Michaels, an area art dealer, told Denver’s KUSA-TV that he tried to stop her adding that the woman screamed: “How can you desecrate my Lord?”
Allahu Akbar! (I kid.)
Chagoya, a Stanford professor, told Fox he was saddened that both his work and the First Amendment were assaulted:
“Should we as artists, or any free-thinking people, have to be subjected to fear of violent attacks for expressing our sincere concerns? I made a collage with a comic book and an illustration of a religious icon to express the corruption of something precious and spiritual,” Chagoya told FoxNews.com. “There is no nudity, or genitals, or explicit sexual contact shown in the image. There is a dressed woman, a religious icon’s head, a man showing his tongue, and a skull of a Pope in the upper right corner of the controversial page. I did not make a picture of Christ. I used symbols as one would use words in a sentence to critique corruption of the sacred by religious institutions.”
(Being attacked by one of those typically violent Christianists is bound to give anyone the vapors.)
In all seriousness, this debate, as the many which have preceded it, does raise significant questions for the viewing public.
Does the artist bear responsibility to understand the context in which his art is displayed? The message of his work may be crystal clear to him as creator, but expressing breathless outrage when something with such obvious potential to be misunderstood raises the ire of the average viewer is just stupid. Know your audience. If your intent is to shock, fine, but don’t act surprised when your appropriation of a religious figure to convey a message is taken the wrong way by Betty Housewife in the American heartland.
Next, if taxpayers are forced to fund endeavors as subjective (to both artist and viewer, clearly) as art, does that not create a certain level of accountability on the part of the artist and/or local venue? The opinions of renaissance art patrons held sway over artists’ creations, to a degree—should we, as modern-day “patrons,” not have recourse to deem a work of art offensive, or at least unwanted in the community gallery? Excuse me, the community gallery we pay for. Artists should have complete freedom of expression on their own dime, or else be held accountable for the work they create if facilitated by our taxes. This desire to be immune from controversy while still on the public payroll is patently absurd.
All things considered, what should our response as individuals be? For the Christian, how about taking the opportunity to explain who Christ is (hint: not the caricature on a wall in Colorado)? Why not have a conversation about the contrast between the subjectivity of Chagoya’s piece and the objective, historic Christ of the Bible? However offensive a particular work of art may be to us, there are certainly other ways to express displeasure, even protest, without destroying property. We can still robustly defend the artist’s First Amendment right to free expression while demanding not to fund it.
Art is many things: communication, emotion, beauty, power, tenderness, truth. It’s axiomatic that something so varied in message and medium should remain outside the domain of public funding and, by extension, government control of any kind. Picasso, whose own works spanned the range from perspective-shattering philosophical statement (The Studio) to gut-wrenching political commentary (Guernica), understood art’s abilities quite well:
Art is not made to decorate rooms. It is an offensive weapon in the defense against the enemy.
Perhaps the question we should be asking is: Should such a weapon, whether virtuous or obscene, ever be in the government’s hands?