Monday, April 18, 2011

Iconoclasm in Avignon

As everyone knows by now, two works by Andres Serrano, including the famous/notorious "Piss Christ," were destroyed by vandals Catholic activists this Sunday in Avignon. The works had been displayed in the city before without incident and had this time been hanging in the Avignon gallery for three months without arousing any particular ire until the archbishop of Avignon, Mgr Jean-Pierre Cattenoz, objected to their presence, setting in motion a mounting tide of emotion ending in the destruction of the works.

Serrano's work is not to everyone's taste (including mine), but many tasteless works escape auto-da-fé. The passions unleashed in Avignon are similar to those unleashed by the Danish cartoons mocking Mohammed or the burning of the Koran in Florida. It seems rather beside the point to take refuge behind the supposed "sacred" status of the "work of art" when the point of the work is at least in part to provoke, just as surely as the cartoons and the burning were intended to provoke. Art can no more abdicate its capacity to provoke than religion can. The artist chooses to avail himself of that power in full knowledge of what he is doing, and if the provocation results in the destruction of the work, it paradoxically enhances its own power as well as the standing of "art" in general. In the age of mechanical reproduction, moreover, destruction may not be permanent. The mockery of death and resurrection may itself be born again. I prefer to reserve my outrage for other matters, since I share neither the passion for nor the passion against "Piss Christ." Speech is free, and those who would suppress the artist's freedom to speak now stand before the courts. Life goes on.


Passerby said...

I wonder if this is just a mundane incident. I had not heard of this artwork before, and certainly would not have made the effort to go to Avignon to see it.
But I am very uncomfortable whenever some people decide that the best treatment for a given work is destruction. We are talking about a photograph displayed in an identified place: if you don't like it, don't go the museum to watch it. If you are really outraged, write to the author.
But as far as I am concerned, choosing destruction is purely & simply anti-democratic. I don't want to see, so none shall see it.

Of course this is the work of only a few fanatics. However, lately it seems that there is a resurgence of ultra-conservative Catholics in France. And that they are taking a harder line. As illustrated by recent debate around tactics by pro-life supporters.
For me this radicalization doesn't bode well. I mean we're talking about people who's traditional way to "rebel" has been to keep church celebration in latin...

JM in Berlin said...

Hello there,

Yes I agree, it's regrettable that people had to resort to violence to express their opposition to that (literal) piece of rubbish blown into "artistic" proportions. I am a Catholic, not a very devout one and I go to church less than 10 times per year I'd say, but I feel insulted by this. However, the difference between me and the people who destroyed the picture is that I don't feel the need to become violent when I feel insulted by something. Yes, a trial would have been the most civilised way of dealing with it. Maybe the artist would have been condemned; after all, so many legal precedents have been set, mostly after the attacks on Islam, I'm sure they would have won the case. Also, I think that if there really is a God up there, then for sure he'd know best how to reward this "artist", and then again we mortals should care less about this poor soul's voluntary leap into the abyss.

He also is turned into a victim now, which definitely s*cks.

Then again, setting this on equal foot with the Muhammad Cartoon protests is so wrong! Come on. Will this guy risk being murdered by a fanatical Catholic? Did fanatical catholics create fake works to make the guy look even worse in the eye of the public?

There have always be ultra-conservative catholics in France, always, always, always, since the time of the Guerres de Religion in the 16th c. They're a very marginal portion of the society, but they're there. They call Louis XVI's death "murder" rather than "an execution", they oppose to lots of things and they have plenty of kids. However, let's not fool ourselves, they're not the most dangerous category of religious fanatics in France. This fellow is lucky he did a "Christ Piss" and not a "Quran Piss"... I'm sad I have to write this, and I'm sorry with the current wave of Islamophobia in France and Europe (look at Finland today), but it's true.

JM in Berlin said...

"Speech is free" you say. Er, no. Well, in theory it is, but it's not. This is Europe, not America. And I like it very much the way we have it here. You can't make Hitler salutes in Germany or praise the 3rd Reich here. You can't claim that the Holocaust didn't happen or grossly minimise its impact while you're in France, and you can't make antisemitic remarks the kind Dieudonné did. All this is very fair and reasonable, on a continent which almost self-destructed itself a few decades ago. I wish you couldn't make racist comments as well, but most people who do seem to get away with it with a mere slap on the wrists.

So, as long as something is "free, but...", then it ceases to be free. In a way, it's a pity - yes speech should be free. But in practice, for better or worse, it isn't.

oblomov said...

Even before the vandalism the masterpiece got loads of tv space.
On French news the story came over as being about "a photograph of a crucifix immersed in christ's urine."
Maybe we'll be using white wine for communion from here on...
Then we got "islamists/catholic extremists, same combat," except that the cathos stopped at the symbol, didn't riot or kill anyone.
I suppose we should consider Serrano's stuff as conceptual art, a sort of "happening" deal, so anyone busting the place up is somehow part of the act.