Serrano, Andres 1951(?)–
Andres Serrano 1951(?)–
A 30-by-40-inch color photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine placed artist Andres Serrano at the forefront of the ongoing debate on free speech and freedom of artistic expression that rages in America. Serrano’s infamous photograph—“Piss Christ”—raised the hackles of right-wing groups like the American Family Association and prompted heated debate on federal funding for so-called “offensive” or “indecent” art. Protesters have demonstrated at Serrano’s exhibitions, and Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina denounced the Brooklyn native in ARTnews as “not an artist” but “a jerk.”
The controversy heightened Serrano’s fame and made him and his work a touchstone for those who feel that art’s primary function is to provoke strong emotion. According to Atlanta Journal correspondent Catherine Fox, “Piss Christ” has become “a political icon, exemplifying not only how demagogues reduce complex issues into simple, polarizing symbols, but also the way they equate Christian values with American values.” For his part, the artist—who is admittedly highly ambivalent about his Roman Catholic upbringing—said to Fox, “I think my use of bodily fluids, especially in connection to Christianity, has been a way of trying to personalize and redefine my relationship with Christ.”
For all its notoriety, “Piss Christ” is only one portrait in a body of work that dates back to the 1980s. Early Serrano photographs feature Catholic icons or imagery depicted with blood, milk, and water. Another series features the artist’s semen, and he has also used butchered cows’ heads and other body parts. The idea of making pictures based on bodily fluids grew out of Serrano’s longtime use of animal blood to create his artistic imagery. “I felt I could paint with fluids,” Serrano told ARTnews. “They automatically had content built in.”
Objecting to the content of Serrano’s work, members of the United States Senate used selections of Serrano’s pieces—as well as works of the controversial late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe—to lobby for changes in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). On the Senate floor, Alphonse D’Amato, a Republican from New York, called Serrano’s pictures a “deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity,” as reported in ARTnews. Members of the artistic community were quick to respond to such attacks. Atlanta Journal editorial writer Tom
Born c. 1951 in Brooklyn, NY; son of a Honduran father and a Haitian mother; married Julie Ault (an artist). Education: Attended Brooklyn Museum Art School.
Artist and photographer, 1979—. Work has appeared at numerous galleries and museums in U.S. and Europe, including the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum, High Museum (Atlanta, GA), Stux Gallery, (New York City), Museum of Contemporary Art (Nimes, France), Robert Klein Gallery (Boston, MA), and BlumHelman Gallery (Santa Monica, CA).
Addresses: c/o Stux Gallery, 163 Mercer St., New York, NY 10012.
Teepen wrote, “Mr. Serrano does valid work. His equivocal icons express unresolved feelings about the Hispanic Catholic culture of his youth. His use of body fluids explores and exploits the potency of their connotations.”
Andres Serrano was born in Brooklyn, New York. He has been described in the Atlanta Journal as a “one-man melting pot” for his mixed racial background. As a Haitian, Serrano’s mother is a Caribbean native of African origin. His father, who is white, was born in Honduras but worked for the United States Merchant Marine. The family located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, an Italian neighborhood. There Serrano attended Catholic school and church on Sundays.
Serrano left the Catholic Church when he was 13, but Catholic imagery and ceremony continued to exert a hold on him. Though he occasionally attended Mass, certain aspects of the faith remained troubling to him. Fox noted that Serrano has spoken “of how the church creates a distance between religious figures and worshipers by minimizing the former’s human nature.” The artist sees his work as one way to bridge the gap between human and divine.
Serrano finally found his niche at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, where, in the late 1960s, he seriously began pursuing art. He studied painting and sculpture but was most drawn to photography, in which he used mannequins and surrealistic techniques to create psychologically charged portraits. “I found I couldn’t paint or sculpt to my satisfaction, but I was still interested in making images,” he told the Atlanta Journal. “My girlfriend had a camera. I picked it up.”
For seven years—into the early 1980s—Serrano was plagued by substance abuse. “It was a very difficult time in my life,” Serrano told ARTnews. “[Finally] I stopped taking drugs altogether. I was 28, and I felt that if I continued on drugs till I was 30 I’d never be the artist I wanted to be.” That insight helped him to straighten out his life and return to his photography.
Serrano’s early career was reminiscent of the surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel and painter Salvador Dali, who also used the symbols and rituals of Roman Catholicism in their work. Fox contended that Serrano’s portraits are about “contradiction and duality,” adding that they “beckon with a surface beauty, but surprise, or perhaps repel, with their provocative content.” The name alone gives away the content of “Piss Christ.” As Los Angeles Times correspondent Cathy Curtis noted, “The casual viewer of [the photograph] would see only a large, golden-yellow crucifix submerged in an atmospheric red liquid shot through with tiny trails of bubbles. The image has a lush, soft-edged romanticism that suggests a larger-than-life version of the surreally golden portrayals of Christ in children’s Bibles.” In fact, the work gained little notoriety until it was part of an exhibition at the Southeast Center of Contemporary Art, a North Carolina arts center that receives funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. There it caught the attention of Senator Helms and—through him—the American Family Association, headed by the Reverend Donald Wildmon.
Helms was particularly incensed that federal funds had been used to support Serrano’s work. The senator mounted a campaign against Serrano in particular—“Piss Christ” was the first work singled out by right-wing politicians and lobbyists for its “offensive” content—but then broadened his attack to include other controversial artwork as well. “In the beginning, I was out there alone, and nobody was really paying much attention,” Serrano told ARTnews. “It was only when it became obvious that it was a bigger thing than just an attack on me that people started to rally around.”
As Serrano quickly discovered, being branded “a jerk” by the right wing is not necessarily a calamity; as he continued to produce more provocative works—a tubular crucifix filled with blood (“Blood Cross”), a wooden cross behind a real heart (“Sacred Heart”)—he found his art in demand at big-city galleries. He was also invited to become a spokesman for artistic freedom, appearing on television’s Face the Nation and at numerous museums and universities throughout the United States. By 1991 Serrano’s prints were selling for $5,000 to $8,000 apiece. Exhibitions of his 1992 portraits have been held at major galleries on both coasts and in France.
While the American Family Association and a handful of national politicians continued to call for modification of NEA funding laws, art critics began to examine Serrano’s work seriously. In her assessment of “Piss Christ,” Los Angeles Times contributor Curtis stated that the tension in the picture lies in Jesus’s humanity as a historical figure contrasted with the subsequent distortion he has undergone as a symbol of piety created by the religious establishment. “In a startlingly original way,” she wrote, “‘Piss Christ’ conflates the painfully graphic, bloody images of traditional Latin American religious art with the large, vague, gilded images of a televangelist culture.”
By 1990, Serrano had moved on to new subjects. In 1991 he displayed the new “Nomad” series, a group of six-foot Cibachrome portraits of homeless New Yorkers, photographed against a neutral background. The photographer told ARTnews that he was inspired by photographs he had seen of Native Americans, done by Edward S. Curtis. “I’d always admired Curtis’s portraits,” Serrano said. “Curtis saw Indians as a vanishing race—I wanted to do these [photographs] not as a race but as a class of individuals on the verge of extinction.” The portraits Serrano delivered for his series ennoble their destitute subjects, who were paid ten dollars each as a sitting fee. Serrano concluded in ARTnews that this achievement in particular has had special significance for him. “There’s not that comfortable distance for me in this work,” he said. “I’ve never been homeless, but I’ve been on the outside—part of that marginal element.”
Another project that proved illuminating for the artist was his series of portraits of Ku Klux Klan [a historically violent racist organization] members, including a retired imperial wizard who donned his full regalia for a shot. Serrano told the Atlanta Constitution that the experience of photographing Klansmen was “very strange for them as well as for me.” He added that the very act of shooting the photographs helped him to gain an understanding of—if not sympathy for—his subjects’ points of view. “All this talk of white supremacy….” he said. “I discovered that they are very poor, at the bottom of the barrel. Even the scapegoats need scapegoats…. I didn’t talk race with them, but a number of them talked race with me.”
Though Serrano had moved beyond “Piss Christ,” debate over that work continued. In a 1992 presidential campaign speech in Georgia, Republican contender Patrick Buchanan told an assembly of Georgia state representatives that NEA-funded artists intentionally set out to “injure, wound, offend and insult Americans of traditional values, Christians, and conservatives,” as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Buchanan added: “I don’t care what they do in their garrets with their precious bodily fluids and their bullwhips [a reference to a Mapplethorpe photograph], but I tell you when I’m president we won’t be paying for it with American tax dollars.” Buchanan’s remarks, however, were met with a decided lack of enthusiasm; as Serrano himself discovered, many who do not support other conservative issues do not support restructuring the NEA either. Georgia state senator Sallie Newbill, the Republican minority leader, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Buchanan was simply trying to create a demand “for his brand of politics,” venturing, “I think it will backfire.”
Controversy will undoubtedly follow Serrano for some time to come; the artist admits that his favorite Ku Klux Klan portrait—of a man in a red-and-white robe—has “something spiritual” about it. “He looks almost like a bishop,” Serrano told the Atlanta Constitution. In 1992, Serrano was living with his wife in a Brooklyn apartment that amply illustrated his fixation on Catholic imagery and surrealist technique. He was working in a studio decorated with a human brain preserved in a bottle. Serrano steadfastly maintains that his work is meant to be provocative only in the cerebral sense—it is meant to provoke thought —and contends that it is a reflection of his ongoing exploration of himself.
Art in America, November 1989; April 1990.
ARTnews, September 1991.
Atlanta Constitution, October 8, 1990.
Atlanta Journal, April 22,1990; April 29,1990; October 7, 1990.
Insight, July 17, 1989.
Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1990; May 24, 1991.
New York Times, August 4, 1991.
Philadelphia Inquirer, February 29, 1992.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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