When I read that Andre Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ had been destroyed, allegedly by Christian protesters, I must admit to feeling a frisson of satisfaction that those who live by the sword do occasionally get their comeuppance the same way.
For decades it seems that one of the key elements of art generally, and visual art in particular, has been to shock. It is surely therefore a testimony to the success of an artwork, in these terms, to provoke its own destruction. That ‘Piss Christ’ finally achieved such an accolade arguably moves Serrano into the ‘Premier League’ of this particular genre.
Whilst reading the reactions to this event, however, I was struck by two particular things. One was those who attacked those who had destroyed the work as ‘vandals’. Surely they should have been welcomed as a necessary part of the whole artistic ‘event’. How can a work of art which sets out to make a statement be regarded as successful if no-one reacts? And how can the shocking be shocking unless people are — well, shocked?
The other was a comment about the ‘beauty’ of the work itself — the delicate light and colour of the photo of a crucifix.
At this point, however, I was reminded of a visit I made to the Tate Modern a few years ago which finally brought home to me the hollowness of much contemporary art.
I should say, incidentally, that I grew up in a home where modern art was freely available and readily embraced. My parents subscribed to The Studio magazine, and I loved to browse through the back numbers we kept in a vast cupboard halfway up the stairs.
As I traipsed around the galleries, however, I became aware of first a pattern, then a change, in what I was doing. At first I looked at the artwork, then at the label on the wall. Reading the labels told me what the work was ‘about’ — not just the title, which itself could be quite enlightening, but the thought behind the painting, sculpture or installation.
After a while, however, I found I was reading the label first, then looking at the artwork.
Finally, I realized that I actually didn’t need to look at the artwork at all — I could read the label and be just as well-informed, indeed sometimes more so. On the other hand, without the label, I would say that most of the time I entirely missed the point.
And so we come to Immersion (Piss Christ). This, we are told (by The Guardian), was part of a series of such images intended by Serrano as “a criticism of the ‘billion-dollar Christ-for-profit industry’ and a ‘condemnation of those who abuse the teachings of Christ for their own ignoble ends”.
To which I can only reply, “Oh no it isn’t.” Look at it. It is a blurry yellow picture of a crucifix.
There is no discernible hint of ‘billion-dollar industries’ or ‘ignoble ends’ in the work itself. Its all on the label.
And in fact it is the label which ‘makes’ the art ‘work’, for without the word ‘piss’ (and who can tell it is piss without the label?), you just have a blurry picture of a crucifix. The picture, in fact, is not shocking. The ‘shock’ and the ‘message’ are entirely in the label.
By contrast, and almost at random, let us consider Michelangelo’s ‘David’. Actually, given the conspicuously uncircumcised nature of the subject, the label is probably useful here as well — at least if we are supposed to think it is the biblical King David. But who cares? It is just a fantastic sculpture. You don’t want to go up to a label and peer at it in order to ‘get’ what it is about. You just want to look — that, and ask everyone else in the room to shut the hell up.
One day, as an experiment, someone should try just removing all the labels from the Tate Modern and insisting that any new works should also be presented and displayed without labels.
I wonder how the artists would react?
“So Mr Serrano, it’s a crucifix.”
“Yes, but you have to understand, it’s not just a crucifix, it’s ...”
“Thank you, Mr Serrano, but to us, it’s a picture of a crucifix. Very nice. Have you got anything else? OK, a Madonna and Child, and is that a little Satan in that picture? Tell you what, we’ll give you a ring.”
John RichardsonPlease give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted.
20 April 2011
20 April 2011