The barbarians are still at the gates

Twenty-four years ago, a marginally-talented artist decided to make a statement about the way in which religious figures have been misrepresented by their religious organizations. A fine statement, all things considered. This artist decided to express this opinion by encasing a crucifix in a jar of his own urine and called it, somewhat uncreatively, Piss Christ. However lofty the sentiment may have been, the execution is somewhat juvenile and rudimentary. It’s the sort of “shock factor” statement that a high school student would make – like crudely drawing the Madonna fellating the Buddha or something like that. Considering the wide variety of ways in which religious iconography is shown disrespect, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ is rather tame.

Fourteen years later, Piss Christ is still generating controversy and outrage from idiots. This time, though, the idiots have hammers:

When New York artist Andres Serrano plunged a plastic crucifix into a glass of his own urine and photographed it in 1987 under the title Piss Christ, he said he was making a statement on the misuse of religion. Controversy has followed the work ever since, but reached an unprecedented peak on Palm Sunday when it was attacked with hammers and destroyed after an “anti-blasphemy” campaign by French Catholic fundamentalists in the southern city of Avignon. The violent slashing of the picture, and another Serrano photograph of a meditating nun, has plunged secular France into soul-searching about Christian fundamentalism and Nicolas Sarkozy’s use of religious populism in his bid for re-election next year.

It is so common as to be cliche at this point: someone uses an art medium to criticize a religious subject, and the followers of the “Religion of Peace” du jour decide that their hurt feelings are justification for that work’s destruction. As though the argument hasn’t been forward literally thousands of times that the way to fight art you don’t like is to ignore it, and to encourage others to do the same. Suppression of ideas is a giant waste of time, and so counterproductive as to be almost comical.

Perhaps more frightening is the fact that this complete abdication of reason is being actively stoked by a political entity to gain support. In a country like France, where secularism was literally purchased with blood, it’s chilling to see someone fanning the flames of the conflict between religious people and secular society, especially for something so craven as re-election. It is one thing to discuss and point out differences of position, it is another entirely to turn it into a “they are coming to burn your bibles” situation, as Sarkozy appears to be willing (if not eager) to do.

I am not interested in defending the Piss Christ. I don’t think it takes much talent or imagination to submerge an object in urine. I don’t really see the connection between exhibiting a urine-soaked crucifix and the ostensible message criticizing the misuse of religion. I think there are far more clear and creative ways to get that point across. To my eye, this is the equivalent of a radio shock jock using racial slurs to gin up controversy. However, with their trademark inability to appreciate irony, the religious mob has decided to prove the exact point that the installation is criticizing.

Of course, this is the smashing of a plexiglass container of urine. Anyone wishing to replicate this priceless work of art can send me 50 bucks, a Powerade, a mason jar and a crucifix – I’ll happily provide the rest. While the original work has been destroyed, the statement is alive and the artwork itself is simple enough to reproduce if need be. Smashing it is a shitty thing to do, but it’s not as though the world has lost Michaelangelo’s David or Picasso’s Guernica – if we were really concerned about this priceless treasure, we could make another one, and unless you knew the story of the original you wouldn’t know the difference.

No what is truly frightening is the prospect that there are people who won’t stop at simple destruction of property to express their outrage at whatever imagined light was perpetrated against their Collective Delusion. There are people who are so god-bothered that they feel they have the divinely-granted authority to kill human beings for saying things they disagree with. This is the system that people say humanity can’t possibly do without.

The fact is that rationality has surpassed our need for imagined explanations and intuitions  to govern our society. We can govern ourselves based on secular reason – furthermore, those regions that do this more are doing much better than their less-reasoned brethren. Those who would react to an idea by trying to destroy it, and those that think it, must not be the ones to rule us. They should be thought of, in our walled palace of reasoned thought, as barbarians banging at the gates.

The barbarians are at the gates, and they’re armed with bibles.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *