Monday, May 20, 2013

On Photography - Piss Christ and Kulturkampf

I don’t believe in culture. Don’t believe artists produce it, for example, or that television advertisements create it. Analysis of culture, for example from a marxist perspective on capitalist monopolies, or from an epidemiological perspective on the causes of violence, require some initial leap of faith: you have to believe in culture as deterministic, cause and affect, a mechanism, or a force-field, when there is scant evidence of any of those.

In many theoretical perspectives culture is presented as a fog that needs peering through, an organisational chart, a guided tour rather than a lived experience. The word is a handy generalization, sure. You can look at the edges, borders and overlaps between geographies, histories, circumstances, and what those might have in difference or in common. But boundaries, epistemologies and zeitgeists are fluid, liminal, shifting, and no great help for getting to the heart of what's inside.

It would be dishonest, though, to leave what are popularly called the culture wars out of a discussion of modern photography. Conjoining culture and war leaves an impression in my mind of...something shapeless and vague, shadows in twilight perhaps, or Goya's giants endlessly bludgeoning each other.

Thinking about this is further complicated by the strategy I’m using that follows  Elaine Scarry’s critique of aesthetic critiques in On Beauty And Being Just. I’m using beauty in the sense of notability, like that black eye is a real beauty, or (from football) what a mark, you beaut!. Something notable, in other words, rather than something of beauty in the ordinary sense of being pleasing to the eye. Elaine Scarry wrote:

The political critique of beauty is composed of two parts. The first urges that beauty, by preoccupying our attention, distracts attention from wrong social arrangements.
The second argument holds that when we stare at something beautiful, make it an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the object.
(Elaine Scarry (2006) On Beauty And Being Just, Duckworth, London, pp58)

Both arguments are in play in consideration of Andres Cerrano’s photograph Piss Christ. The photograph itself is described here, the artist’s website is here. I didn’t see the photograph when it was exhibited. I’m not familiar with the artist’s work, methods or rationale, or the series of photographs of objects in fluids of which it is part. My interest here is solely in the idea that its exhibition in Melbourne is storied as an engagement in a larger war of and on culture.

It will be no help referring to European statesman Otto Von Bismarck's difficulties with Catholicism in 1870s Western Europe, or referencing early twentieth century Italian Marxism, or the 1933 Säuberung.

I want to leapfrog those ideas into recent experience, into modern Melbourne. A further complication for me is some ideas from the study of macro economics. I have no background in the study of economics at all, but I am going to borrow ideas about exchanges from discourses on macro economics. My (limited) understanding is not all exchanges have to do with money, some are to do with ideas and associations and even making friends, but nevertheless play their part in a whole that is often, but not always, described as an economy.

The facts are straightforward. Pre publicity for an exhibition of Andres Cerrano’s photographs at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1997 saw the photograph or its description included in prominent print and electronic media. The Catholic Church in Australia sought an order preventing the photograph from public display at the gallery in the Victorian Supreme Court, arguing precedents in both Canon and Common Law on blasphemous libel.

The Catholic Church argued "Both the name and the image Piss Christ not only demean Christianity but also represent a grossly offensive, scurrilous and insulting treatment of Christianity's most sacred and holy symbol. It is calculated to outrage the feelings of Catholics and other Christians."

The National Gallery of Victoria argued the photograph had been the subject of a television documentary, published in newspapers and books and its exhibition would not add to any perceived offence against the Catholic Church.

The Victorian Supreme Court rejected the application as having no foundation in law, and found no legal basis to prevent the exhibition.  "A plural society such as contemporary Australia operates best where the law need not bother with blasphemous libel," the court decided.

In the week after the exhibition opened the photograph was vandalised twice, leading to the arrest of three men, two of whom had acted in concert. Concerned that it could not prevent such determined attacks, gallery management closed the exhibition.

Using the term ‘calculated’ to describe the production and exhibition of this image places ideas about determinism, conspiracy, authenticity, and deception on the table. To paraphrase: blasphemous libel is a wrong social arrangement. In labelling the photograph art, including it in an exhibition, making it on object of sustained regard, the gallery is a willing accomplice to, or alternatively an unwitting element in, an overarching - devilish perhaps - subterfuge.

Holding the photograph in high regard certainly led to attempts to destroy it. But there is no evidence to support the existence of a calculating, conspiratorial, organized enemy force, no sign of an evil empire poised to make revolution for or against ideology, national self-determination or even religion. If it really were an engagement of a culture war there are no visibly organised protagonists beyond a few  ivory towers blasting away at each other’s values at megaphone volume.

The photograph did not produce a force field that compelled individuals to act in these ways. The artist didn’t produce a predetermined train of events. With no epidemiology of violence to trace, and no rapacious capitalist to blame, or media personality to boycott, the episode has become a muted controversy over artistic and curatorial freedom. But it is explicable in terms of spontaneity and self-organisation, terms often used to describe market economies and a free exchange of goods, or in this case ideas.

Arguments for and against exhibiting the work became more sophisticated. The second act of vandalism was more determined and certainly more complex, and through use of distraction and concurrent action, demonstrably more innovative than the first. These might not be predicted in theories of culture, but they are predicted and comprehensible in theories of markets. I guess the absence of any concrete transaction, for example money for service, undermines an economic perspective. But call the events a series of exchanges, rather than transactions for profit, with outcomes the result of self-organisation rather than any centrality of planning, and you get a glimpse of a free population testing, contesting, reformulating, rejigging, muddling through, as one economist I read put it, one way and another, the limits of its own freedom.

It just might be, from a secular Australian perspective,  that is all the culture wars are.

The last post in this series is here

1 comment:

  1. If the public knew more about art history they would have been aware that human urine was used by many a Renaissance artist to produce certain colors of paint, particularly blue. And urine, contra being 'dirty' is actually quite devoid of toxins and containing mostly water, salt and urea. It has been (and perhaps still being) used in many cultures for its healing properties. It seems to me that the whole idea of portraying Christ's crucifixion (for the Catholic Church) was to reveal Christ's humanity - that he was tortured, bleed, suffered and died. Bodily fluids are part of our human existence. However, I think what happened in regards to Serrano's photograph, is that some people of the Christian persuasion thought that he was colloquially 'taking the piss' out of the Catholic Church, others probably equated the whole idea of pissing on Christ as a kind of fetish - since some people do indeed pee on each other for sexual gratification. Piss Christ is for me one of the perfect examples of the sacred and the profane - two issues repeatedly visited in christian doctrine (though most probably, not only christian doctrine). I personally think that Piss Christ is a beautiful image and if Serrano had not stated that the cross was immersed in urine those viewing the image would have just seen the amber fluid. Photography does create illusions and what if (and this is just a proposition) we discover later on that the fluid was not his urine at all, will all those who rallied against the image somehow condone it?