In the pending appeal of the censorship of Jana's Finished
(a photo showing Jana Jensen wetting her panties after she was knocked out in the eighth round of a WTBA title fight), I stated that Deviant Art well might want to revisit its published policies re using urine in art works, upon some realization that, inadvertently, DA had left a hole in its coverage.
I will take this opportunity to argue that such an expansion not only is unwarranted but also an invitation for controversial works to be judged by the stupid.
More than anything else, censorship of art most likely will suppress the presentations of the deepest thinkers upon the prejudices of the shallowest (what arguably we have here).
Among the most controversial works of the late Twentieth Century -- literally magnitudes
higher in terms of "offensiveness" than anything one will find here -- is Andres Serrano's Immersion (Piss Christ),
a photograph the exhibition of which literally has caused riots in downtown Paris. Piss Christ is a photograph of a plastic crucifix immersed in a beaker of urine with, apparently, some cow's blood added for heightened color:
Andrew Hudgins for Slate said of the controversial work, " If we did not know it was cow's blood and urine, if we did not know that Serrano had for weeks hoarded his urine in a plastic vat, if we did not know the cross was gimcrack plastic, we would assume it was too beautiful. We would assume it was the resurrection, glory, Christ transformed to light by light because the blood and urine burn like a halo, and light, as always, light makes it beautiful."
But, of course, we do know that the liquid is cow's blood and urine, and not amber or polyurethane, because Serrano, himself has said so and, furthermore, his admission is incorporated into the title of the work.
What are we to make of this? There are several interpretations one can attach to the work including, perhaps, that blood and urine are the elixirs of life, and that people should drink them. However, that is not the interpretation Serrano, himself, has attached to his photograph, and if we are to accept his admission that the fluid is urine, I think we also must hold truthful his added explanation of what use of the substance means. Serrano says he made the photograph to protest the trivialization by contemporary religion of the symbols of its essence. According to Serrano: "What it symbolizes is the way Christ died: [T]he blood came out of him but so did the piss and the shit. Maybe if Piss Christ upsets you, it's because it gives some sense of what the crucifixion actually was like."
In these sentiments, he was seconded by an art critic also a Catholic nun, who said that, far from a blasphemy, she considered the photograph to express a statement on "what we are doing to Christ."
Against this backdrop, it is difficult to see just how DA could justify this particular work's suppression. Whatever one thinks of the photo or its explanation, the one ground that does not seem to apply is display of "sexual bodily fluids" -- as we already have seen, as a matter of biochemistry, urine is not a "sexual" fluid, and there clearly is nothing "sexual" in Piss Christ.
Nor can we condemn it as "hate speech," since such also would require the censor to attach to the image an interpretation at odds with what Serrano, himself, has had to say about it. Serrano points out that he's been a Catholic all his life. His photograph is not intended to stir up hatred of Catholics but actually expresses a pro
Can we call Piss Christ "obscene"? As DA, itself, admits, "obscenity" is a legal concept, and part of that legal concept is that, before any work can be condemned for being pornographic or obscene, a judgment must be made in terms of the totality
of the work and not just some individual component of it. Hudgins' observation that use of the blood and urine made the primary image of Christ on the cross "burn like a halo" only highlights the possibility that the purpose for using the mixture was to obtain the proper balance of reflection and light.
That leaves us only with such lesser categories as "controversy," and certainly this photograph has generated its share of that. But, to allow some staff employee at DA to expand the current prohibitions merely to block a work he or she objects to because of his or her perception of what urine is seems to me to be a blanket invitation for all of us to be ruled by the idiots.
Granted we don't want every other photo on DA to be of some woman sucking dick, I think we also don't want DA to become the asylum for the idiots.
But, the principal thing I had in mind, in writing this journal entry (since what we do here is digital manipulation), is to transform Serrano's work, with as little manipulation as possible, to say exactly the opposite
of what Serrano intended. For the purposes of this lesson, I want the photograph to be a condemnation of Catholicism specifically and Christianity in general, in order to show why even that
is not a proper subject for censorship.
Serrano's photograph is copyright 1987; to accomplish the transformation, all I'm going to do is first save the photo as "Piss Christ (Serrano)," then pirate the work and give to it a phony copyright (1989) in the name or Robert Mapplethorpe:
To understand the significance of this, one has to know a little bit about biology, a little bit about medicine, a little bit about history, a little bit about religion, and a little bit about Robert Mapplethorpe.
Let's take these subjects seriatim
: Human beings share the earth with numerous other organisms and pseudo-organisms (since, technically, viruses are not alive). Among those entities we probably would prefer didn't
share our world is the human immunodeficiency virus -- HIV -- that leads to AIDS (acquired immune-deficiency syndrome). Although HIV has come to our attention only relatively recently, there simply is no reason to believe that something so biochemically complex as AIDS is of recent creation. The virus has shown a unique capacity to hide within the human body, making it resistant to potential vaccines, and as of this moment, we still don't know how to cut it off or kill it. It operates by attacking human T-cells and systematically annihilating a person's immune system, making a person infected increasingly at risk for developing other diseases which eventually cause death of the organism. The death is protracted; the infected person literally falls apart. Short of crucifixion, there probably are few deaths that are worse.Medicine
: It is well known that AIDS has been particularly virulent within homosexual communities, and that homosexual men are among those especially
hard hit. In discussing how people become infected with AIDS, the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy
has said: "Infected cells can reach target cells in a new host directly (blood transfusions, injection) or after mucous membrane exposure; ie, by close, direct contact that breaches normal body barriers. For example, chimpanzees
have been infected via vaginal exposure without trauma or coexisting infection. Presumably, such mucous membrane transmission would be even easier in the presence of inflamed or traumatized tissues; eg, anorectal lesions, which are highly prevalent in homosexual men.
Among humans, heterosexual transmission from men to women has been well documented. Transmission from women to men appears to be more difficult, but such instances are being increasingly reported. While transmission by accidental needle stick has occurred, transmission of HIV by this means is much more difficult and much less frequent than is hepatitis B."
I want to stress here what I have and have not said: Anyone
can get AIDS if he or she engages in risky behavior; however, individuals engaging in anal intercourse (and that certainly would include homosexual males as a special class) particularly
are at risk. Furthermore, nature only presents; she does not classify. Hence, unless one is referring to persons solely
homosexual or solely
heterosexual, the entire concept of "sexual orientation" is false
. What actually exists among wild humans is a continuum of behaviors that spans the entire gamut of male-female interactions, with some being more heterosexual than homosexual and some the reverse.
Finally, read the Manual
carefully: Humans can get AIDS from sexual intercourse with monkeys
-- "beasts." And, because of the long incubation period that occurs between initial infection and full-blown AIDS, a person infected with HIV can be a particular danger to everyone else in the society around him. In saying that, I stress: I'm an atheist and have no skin in this game. These are just the medical facts. History
: Our knowledge of the microbial world dates only from the invention of the microscope by van Leeuwenhoek in 1674. Viruses are so small that many of them can be seen only with electron microscopes, which date from the late Twentieth Century. Prior to that time, our knowledge even of the existence of the creatures to be seen in this way was non-existent.
Humans long have known about pandemics and plagues. Ancient peoples (and not just Christians or Jews) commonly ascribed the causes of these calamities to displeasure on the part of a particular god or goddess, who then punished mankind in some way for the offense. The entire plot of the Iliad
is built around such a claim -- that the Greeks were punished with deadly illnesses because Agamemnon insulted Apollo by defiling the god's priestess. Needless to say, no one today believes in Apollo; however, ever since the discoveries of Heinrich Schliemann, we have known that the stories of the Trojan War at least are based on fact. There is no reason whatsoever to disbelieve the claim that Apollo's priestess was defiled or that the Greek armies were ravaged by plague within their camp, or that the two incidents occurred concurrently.
There is every
reason to believe these two incidents simply were coincidental, and that the real cause of the plague had nothing to do with priestesses. Furthermore, though none in the ancient world even could know the actual cause, some people back then weren't all that
ignorant. In Deuteronomy
, Moses instructs the Hebrews: "You shall have a place outside the camp, and you shall go out to it; and you shall have a stick [or spade] with your weapons; and when you sit down outside, you shall dig a hole with it and turn back and cover up your excrement. Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to save you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, that he may not see anything indecent among you, and turn away from you."
We certainly wouldn't want God to get mad at us for stepping in our shit!
Now, I no more believe in Yahweh than I believe in Apollo; but, I do believe in microbes, and I do believe that Moses was not only a real person but a pretty smart guy. His name suggests that the reason we cannot find him in history is because we're looking in the wrong place. The time of the Moses kings -- Ahmose, Tutmose, etc., was a few hundred years before Ramses the Great. In Egyptian, "mose" and "moses" means "drawn from" -- a way to say "junior" (Tutmose is the son of -- he was "drawn from" -- Tut). The story of how he was saved from the slaughter of the innocents makes sense, which means that, for being raised in Pharaoh's house, he would have had a first-class education, the best his day provided, in contemporary terms, "a Harvard man." Josephus tells us that he was an important military commander in the Egyptian army and directed several successful campaigns in the country's south. The passage in Deuteronomy is completely consistent with what an ancient, educated man guided by experience would require in terms of camp hygiene, even though he didn't really know what he was doing.
Similarly, we now know that the Jewish prohibition of eating pork or snails (not shrimp -- Hebrews did not live on the coast) has a very valid (but then not understood) medical reason attached to it: Eating pork can get one infected with trichinae worms, and eating snails from the Nile can get one infected with a blood fluke that leads to schistosomiasis. That won't happen if one cooks the meat, but obviously the Egyptians and Hebrews had become experienced for eating them raw.
The Bible also contains prohibitions against sexual (including homosexual) practices, interestingly part of the Levitical degrees. The degrees actually are designed to prevent consanguinity in marriage (a genetic danger), and they have no relationship medically to engaging in anal intercourse. But, there is no way that Moses could have known that 3,500 years ago, so they all get lumped together, for being the kinds of practices (along with "sleeping with beasts" -- monkeys) that lead to nasty-looking results.
I submit that our good man, Moses, was aware without being aware of HIV. Experience had taught the Egyptians that this was not something one wanted spread throughout the society, and not surprisingly, in the Old Testament, the penalty for such misbehavior is death.Religion
: This is a very long path to get to the transmutation of our picture, but we're almost there. The critical distinction between the Old Testament and the New, in considering this subject, is that the Levitical degrees prohibit conduct
: "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. And you shall not lie with any beast and defile yourself with it, neither shall any woman give herself to a beast to lie with it; it is perversion." There is no condemnation here of "homosexuals" (whatever that is) but only of behaviors homosexual men commonly engage in. Similarly, the prohibition against lying with beasts -- monkeys -- applies to men and
women, whereas the other mentions only men alone.
This is simply a theologizing and theocratizing of a public-health measure directed at a combination of being and action.
Christianity doesn't exactly see it that way. In his Epistle to the Romans
, Paul says: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened
. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason, God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error."
This is not quite the same as the Jewish view, since central to the Christian ideology is the assertion that "sin" can arise from thought alone
. When Jimmy Carter told Playboy Magazine about lusting in his heart, he was expressing this idea that becoming aroused by the sight of a beautiful woman, though simply a semi-automatic response to a perception, itself constituted some kind of wrongdoing. The true Christian condemns the homosexual for being homosexual, and not just for doing stupid things in the course of being that. Christian sin does not require an act
to perfect it. The wrong becomes complete solely with the thought.Robert Mapplethorpe
: Mapplethorpe is recognized as one of the best homo-erotic photographers; assigning him falsely with the copyright to Piss Christ is not consistent with the body of his work, at least to my knowledge. But, by so assigning the ownership, the assignment, itself, flips the meaning of the photo to the one that no doubt caused people to riot in Paris. Mapplethorpe was a homosexual, lived openly that way, and died of AIDS early in March 1989. No doubt, there will be some Christians who will say he got pretty much what he deserved. Another way to look at it, however, is that HIV remains a dangerous threat but that, if one day, someone finds a way to combat it, the ancient prohibition against homosexual activity (and specifically anal intercourse) will go the way of the prohibitions against eating pork and escargot.
In the meantime, our society does have to deal with the medical reality, and that's true no matter who ascends to the Supreme Court.
What, then, of the religious views on the subject? It is sufficient, as a matter of modern medicine, to prevent people from consummating desire with action. Nothing further need be done. It is a great escalation to expand the prohibition from a union of thought and action to one of thought alone. Were Mapplethorpe the creator of Piss Christ, what he reasonably would have been saying is that Catholicism is "waste" that needs to be discarded, and not because Catholics should be hated for despising him but because an essential feature of the theology is false
An exploration of such a claim is beyond the scope of this art lesson. What we do learn here is that there can be no such thing as some categorical imperative by which an art work can be judged as "blasphemous," "pornographic," or "obscene." The Supreme Court of the United States spent years trying to delineate some standard by which at least some censorship could be justified legally. All its efforts came to nothing, and today it essentially has given up the attempt.
A private enterprise like Deviant Art, of course, has much greater latitude in terms of writing its own rules. What I would point out, however, is that it doesn't
have an easier problem. Neither Piss Christ (Serrano) nor Piss Christ (Mapplethorpe) can be classified as "pornography" (neither has anything to do with sex). Similarly, the term, "obscenity," doesn't really apply since the employment of urine is not done merely to shock or disgust per se
. As for "blaspheming" -- blaspheming what? There are genuine differences in the tenets of different religions; they all can't be right. And, Mapplethorpe's end does not confirm the Catholic view. Mapplethorpe well may have been wrong, but as an artist, he had the right to raise his fist against his oppressors at the last moment. At the time of his death, homosexuals routinely were fired from their jobs, thrown into jails, and even beaten in the streets, often by the very law-enforcement personnel employed to protect them. Whether we should go so far as to equate bad health practices with the institution of Christian marriage can be debated. But, hopefully we are beyond the time when a person's value to society is measured solely by his stupidity in the bedroom. There is no Piss Christ (Mapplethorpe), and the examination of such a work here is speculative (though I would say reasonably so). But, to allow a censor (and probably a stupid or ignorant one, given all that appears above) to ax such a work upon some claim it is "hate speech" surrenders our judgment to the judgment of a fool.
That's not what Deviant Art is supposed to be about.