In 1987, the photographer Andres Serrano made international headlines with a photograph of the crucifixion in yellowy light. A series of bubbles suggest it’s submerged in some kind of amber liquid. A shaft of light illuminates the cross against a dark background. Overall, the effect is quite pleasant. There is little about the photograph to suggest controversy until we learn the name of the piece. It is The Piss Christ.
That amber gaseous liquid? The plastic crucifix, we learn, is submerged in a glass of the artist’s own urine. The initial controversy was quite vocal but it finally reached crescendo two years later in the United States.
In 1989, it was revealed that Serrano received $15,000.00 in grant money from the tax-payer funded National Endowment for the Arts. The artist was inundated with hate mail and deaths threats. Law makers convened hearings and went to great length to top one another with outrage. Congressional offices were flooded with angry phone calls. Serrano was stripped of pending grant money and after a good dose of self-congratulatory outrage, the controversy subsided.
But religious zealotry has a long memory.
Twenty-two years after the US fury, Piss Christ was damaged beyond repair during an exhibition in Avignon. Vandals smashed it with a hammer. These Prince of Peace disciples also used that tool to smash another Serrano photograph and threaten a guard.
The exhibition continues albeit in a different context. The smashed pieces were kept on display “so the public can appreciate for themselves the violence of the acts.”
Four young men from a right wing group called “Renouveau Français” have been charged with the crime. They are also being sued by Serrano and the Lambert Collection for $486,000.00 in damages.
The four were scheduled to be tried in Avignon in July but a judge just granted more time to prepare their defense. According to the defense attorney, the charges were vague. Four men were charged yet there was only one hammer, she said, did they swing it with four hands?
The trial is now scheduled to begin on November 19th.