There's nothing more entertaining than when a controversial cultural relic resurfaces to incite anger all over again. Such is the case this week (albeit on a much milder scale) with "Piss Christ," Andres Serrano's infamous artwork from the 1980s, set to hit the Sotheby's auction block Thursday.
You may or may not remember the powerful piece of contemporary artwork that riled devout Catholics and grumpy fiscal conservatives nearly three decades ago. (If not, we suggest you knock on the door of your angriest and oldest neighbor. You know, the one with six or seven "No Soliciting" signs taped to his or her glass door. That guy or gal, (s)he'll know.)
If you need a refresher history lesson, here's the jist: The work dates back to 1987, when the American artist Serrano submerged a plastic crucifix in a jar of his own urine, photographed it, and exhibited the image publicly in New York. As you might imagine, a certain subset of Christians were nonplussed at the idea of their deity being dunked in someone's bodily fluids, but outrage didn't hit an apex until another exhibition in 1989, when a few politicians expressed dissatisfaction at the fact that the offensive work was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Senator-turned-art-critic Jesse Helms offered a concise summary of his opinion toward the "Piss Christ" creator at the time. "Serrano is not an artist. He is a jerk."
The attention "Piss Christ" received continued well after the 1989 show. In 2011, protesters in France attacked and destroyed a print of the "blasphemous" work when it went on display in Avignon on Palm Sunday. And in 2012, the Catholic League got all hot and bothered about a retrospective of Serrano's career that featured the submerged Jesus photograph. Fox News predictably followed suit.
Now, in 2014, Sotheby's dares (read with a healthy dose of sarcasm, please) to sell the artistically significant objet d'art as part of its Contemporary Art Day Auction on May 15. With an estimated price of between $100,000 and $150,000, the nearly four-foot tall piece joins the ranks of masterpieces by Roy Lichtenstein, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol. The Catholic League is, again, peeved.
"The Catholic League will not make a bid [on the 'Piss Christ' auction]," it exclaimed to
no one everyone aching to know what's on the mind of today's foremost authority on art. "But we are interested in interviewing the sucker who buys it. If you know who the lout is, please have him give us a call."
In the end, Serrano, himself a spiritual man, has been unduly forced to defend the piece for over 25 years, despite the fact that his prolific and influential body of work stretches far beyond the one photograph. "The thing about the crucifix itself is that we treat it almost like a fashion accessory. When you see it, you're not horrified by it at all, but what it represents is the crucifixion of a man," Serrano told The Guardian in 2012. "And for Christ to have been crucified and laid on the cross for three days where he not only bled to death, he shat himself and he peed himself to death. So if 'Piss Christ' upsets you, maybe it's a good thing to think about what happened on the cross."
"Piss Christ" sold for $277,000 back in 1999 at Christie's, so there's cause to think the lot will surpass the $150,000 estimate. While we shake our heads until this dramatization of normal auction world activities passes, let's remember Bill Donahue, head of the League, and his own "artwork":