Green Room

Of Piss Christs and Cannibals: The “Art” Debate Continues

posted at 1:12 pm on October 8, 2010 by

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?

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“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.”

Which symbol represents Muslims ?
Inquiring minds want to know.

Jeff2161 on October 8, 2010 at 1:41 PM

I think it is fine and dandy if the ‘art’ is in a private gallery, but not in one that the public pays to support. If people who support this public funded gallery think this is ok, that would do also. I have a hard time with some people being more equal than others in anything. If this person had put the rop type head guy on anything you can bet your sweet bippy it would have riots all over the world!
L

letget on October 8, 2010 at 2:21 PM

Yep, letget is right. The people, if they are expected to pay for it, should have a veto over public displays of art. If a private museum or other organization wants to display something, entirely at its own expense, fine.

Having to pay for something isn’t “tolerance” or “allowing free speech.” Being told you have to pay for something goes beyond either.

No one should go destroy what someone else considers art, even if it’s displayed using public money. But the public has the right to reject paying for it. We need to get back to that principle. Tolerance means you allow offensive speech, it doesn’t mean you’re obliged to subsidize it.

J.E. Dyer on October 8, 2010 at 2:37 PM

“We train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won’t allow them to write “****” on their airplanes because it’s obscene!”

Good Solid B-Plus on October 8, 2010 at 2:38 PM

Fantastic essay.

Does the artist bear responsibility to understand the context in which his art is displayed?

As an artist myself, I’m going to say yes. I’m an illustrator though, if I don’t understand the context of my own work or the goal, or even the meaning for that matter, I’ve failed.

The so-called Fine Arts are a different animal. There are several schools of thought contained therein, but the one that seems to be the most common or visible is the ‘shock’ artist, and “Piss-Christ” could be considered this. The idea seems to be that if you can offend people or breach social norms or just be gross, then you’re somehow avant garde.

I find them about as avant garde as an internet troll, personally. Not to mention, most “artists” that operate under this premise are pretty poor at their craft. While I might then generally pronounce them failures, that’s not entirely the case. We’re still talking about “Piss-Christ” and it’s obviously made quite the impact.

I don’t think that’s art though, that’s just someone with opposable thumbs who possesses the ability to urinate in a jar and the dexterity to place an object inside of it coupled with enough awareness to know that that combination will be offensive to a lot of folks. That will gain them recognition, which to many an artist or “artist” is considered equal to success.

My views on art vary quite a bit, but they are generally utilitarian. If you do not have the craft, i.e., skill, then you are not an artist; you’re just someone making a statement and pretending to be eccentric because you think that’s what talented artists do and who they are.

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?

Absolutely it does. If we are funding those projects, that makes us silent clients. We may not be setting forth the parameters for the creation of the work, but we are the inevitable target of whatever is created.

This is a specific matter. If the artist is working for a private company, or working at his own volition, the only limits placed are those by his client or himself, respectively.

Ideally, the NEA would have common-sense limits to works created by artists funded by the organization. Maybe starting with avoiding assassination porn, actual porn, or religious critiques and working from there would be a good start.

It’s not exactly an infringement on expression or free speech when you’re accepting money to provide something, that always comes with rules and regualtions. When you are bestowed with a grant, you are held accountable for what you use the money for. This should be no different just because someone is screaming “but .. but … it’s ART!”.

Heralder on October 8, 2010 at 2:50 PM

Tolerance means you allow offensive speech, it doesn’t mean you’re obliged to subsidize it.

J.E. Dyer on October 8, 2010 at 2:37 PM

My bigger comment about the topic has gone into moderation for now, I think, but meanwhile… J.E. makes a vital distinction about tolerance that a staggering amount of people seem to miss. Good stuff.

Heralder on October 8, 2010 at 2:57 PM

Subsidizing art means the artist is paid, whether or not his work is worth a damn. Even Hollywood has figured out that if they want to do something edgy and arty, they can cover anticipated losses by making BIG EXPLOSIONS, ROBOTS AND BOOOOOOOOOBS!!!!1!1!! XIV, or casting Angelina Jolie and working in a nude scene.

But since divorcing art from the need to make a paycheck, all we’ve gotten is dreck. Artistes writing artistic mash notes to one another, until it blends into some incomprehensible background noise. The only way to stand out anymore is to shock.

Sekhmet on October 8, 2010 at 4:22 PM

Tolerance means you allow offensive speech, it doesn’t mean you’re obliged to subsidize it.

J.E. Dyer on October 8, 2010 at 2:37 PM

You said it perfectly.

Heralder on October 8, 2010 at 2:57 PM

Sorry about the moderation. I assume it was because of the p-word. :)
Thanks, also, for your thoughtful response.

For the record, I actually find the artist’s work interesting and wouldn’t mind seeing them in a gallery sometime. (Links to his other prints here.) But I certainly understand the utilitarian, skill vs. shock argument.

Do you think we should subsidize any artistic expression, though? I’m of the mind that speech should be protected but not funded by our tax dollars (thus giving the government any control over what’s promoted, whether good or bad.) Think Obamacare, salt and soda: whatever we pay for eventually gets micromanaged. I don’t trust them as far as I can throw them.

Bee on October 8, 2010 at 4:31 PM

Sorry about the moderation. I assume it was because of the p-word.

That’s what I figured. No worries at all. :)

But I certainly understand the utilitarian, skill vs. shock argument.

Well, definitely one does not need to trade skill for shock, the trend just seems to follow the opposite flow by and large.

Do you think we should subsidize any artistic expression, though?

Bee on October 8, 2010 at 4:31 PM

I think we should, yes. I see your point about government being better suited for protection. I’ll need to think on this and come back.

Heralder on October 8, 2010 at 4:44 PM

I think we should, yes. I see your point about government being better suited for protection. I’ll need to think on this and come back.

Heralder on October 8, 2010 at 4:44 PM

Not clear on “protection.” I’m simply saying that while we lament state-funded orgs or museums promoting art we don’t like, why wouldn’t we be concerned with the state being involved in the Arts at all? Give them an inch and they take it to China and back. Essentially, what’s the true role of the state and how can we keep that as limited as possible while keeping as much of our own money as possible.

I think I’m being redundant. You get my point, I’m sure. :)

Bee on October 8, 2010 at 5:02 PM