Since its creation in 1987, Artist Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a plastic crucifix in a jar of urine, has divided opinion. In April 2011, the artwork was irreparably damaged by vandals at the Collection Lambert art museum. Katie Engelhart considers whether it was right for the museum to have exhibited the work.
In 1987, New York-based artist Andres Serrano submerged a plastic crucifix in a jar of his own urine and photographed it. The resulting work – full title: Immersion (Piss Christ) – was exhibited in 1989 to modest acclaim, winning the Southeastern Centre for Contemporary Arts “Awards in the Visual Arts” prize. Serrano described the piece as a commentary on the commercialisation of religion.
Not everyone found aesthetic value in Piss Christ. Many dismissed the photograph as tasteless. From Washington DC, Republican senators condemned it as obscene. To the most vociferous critics, the work was tantamount to blasphemy. The photograph also kicked off a broader debate about public arts funding in the United States, after it was revealed that Serrano had received indirect financial support from The National Endowment for the Arts. Though Piss Christ has been shown in galleries around the world for 20 years, this controversy has not dulled. Serrano shows have been attacked in Australia and Sweden in recent years.
Things came to a head in April 2011, when Piss Christ was due to be displayed in Avignon, France, at the Collection Lambert art museum. Shortly before the exhibit’s opening, some 1,000 demonstrators gathered in Avignon in protest. The museum quietly boosted security. Still, a day later, three or four vandals were able to enter the museum wearing dark sunglasses; once inside, they physically threatened security guards and irreparably damaged Piss Christ “with the help of a hammer and an object like a screwdriver of pickaxe”. The museum was immediately closed, and some employees reported death threats. But it has since reopened. Gallery Director Eric Mézil says he wants people to view the damaged work “so [they] can see what barbarians can do”.