We have a tradition of challenging norms to make sure art and ideas don't degenerate into a source of mere comfort. Even the article you sent points out that we know to take such things in our stride. On the other hand, physical force as a means of settling differences has never been a part of who we are.
Any assertion that dismantling an exhibition and assaulting an artist protects our culture or tradition is disingenuous. You know that.
Threaded to this message are a couple of eloquent rejoinders that you might want to consider. No doubt you have come across many more. At the heart of all the rhetoric is the hope that you will find the courage to do the right thing.
Exhibition brings beautiful photographs-and controversy
by John Shea, Compass manager
The colors in the large photograph are mostly reds and oranges, conveying an unexpected warmth to a familiar subject: Christ on the cross. The crucifix itself is bathed in golden highlights. The contours and edges of the crucifix are softened, and in fact the right extension of the crossbar tends to disappear into the deep orange background. On the surface of the print are clusters and streaks of tiny bubbles. Many observers would find the photograph gorgeous, even reverent. Its name: "Piss Christ."
"Andres Serrano: Works 1983-1993," which opened at the University's Institute of Contemporary Art last weekend, did not slip into Philadelphia unnoticed. Jeremy Chiappetta, a senior in the College and president of Penn's Newman Council of Roman Catholic students, was quoted in a Daily Pennsylvanian article expressing his outrage at the display of "Piss Christ." He also spoke at the November meeting of University Council, arguing that "this exhibition has detrimentally affected the climate" of the campus.
Last week, Chiappetta was one of the authors of a D.P. opinion piece about the photograph-and the University's exhibiting of it. Chiappetta and Elizabeth Broadwell, a Penn graduate student, argued that the University had taken prompt action when swastikas appeared in the Graduate Towers; yet Penn "has not shown similar respect for sensibilities outraged by an exhibit which was brought here with University approval."
Responding to Chiappetta at the University Council, Provost Stanley Chodorow said there was "a fundamental difference between a graffito and a work of art." He also maintained that Penn does provide for discussion of such controversial topics. Members of the graduate and undergraduate student governments offered to help stage discussions.
The Daily Pennsylvanian weighed in with an editorial that conceded the feelings that Serrano's work often provokes. On the other hand, the editors argued, "Freedom of expression is a basic, universal right, and the University, as a center for the study and comparison of conflicting ideas, should preserve that right at all costs." The editorial concluded by supporting both the I.C.A.'s right to mount the exhibition-and the right of people on campus to protest against it.
And that was exactly what happened last Friday evening: the Institute of Contemporary Art opened its doors for a private showing for its members and the press, while outside an estimated 50 people held a candlelight procession of protest, carrying a seven-foot cross of their own.
Provoking an ambivalent response
One of the questions viewers may ask themselves in looking at "Piss Christ" (1987) is whether their response to the photograph is determined largely by the title. It is hard to imagine the photograph provoking the same kind of outrage unless the circumstances behind it are known. As described in the exhibition catalogue, "This work presents a thirteen-inch-high, wood-and-plastic crucifix placed in a four-gallon, eighteen-by-twelve inch Plexiglas holding tank filled with the artist's own urine, which he had saved for several weeks."
Patrick Murphy, director of the I.C.A., defended the photograph last Friday, calling it "a convincing work of art" and "very moving." Serrano, he argued, has paradoxically elevated a cheap crucifix by using "a fluid that we consider base." He also pointed out that Serrano did not limit himself to Christian icons. There is also a photograph called "Piss Discus," which makes use of the famous ancient Greek statue of the discus-thrower. In these cases, according to Murphy, the artist has taken "souvenir statuary" and, through "an alchemical combination," created something compelling. (Serrano has also produced photographs using blood, milk, and other bodily fluids.)
Serrano's subject matter varies widely, ranging from what seem to be formal exercises of color and form to portraits. But the formal exercises often trigger more than aesthetic responses. "Blood Cross" (1985), for example, features a stark red cross against a background that recalls, according to the gallery card, "dreamlike theater sets." Sharp lines, formal shapes-but the cross seems to be leaking or dripping blood.
Similarly, with "Colt D.A. 45" (1992), it takes a moment to move from an appreciation of the formal, even abstract shape to realize that the hole one is staring into is in the extremely foreshortened barrel of a handgun.
The unconventional portraits feature members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Roman Catholic Church as well as street people - all somewhat apart from everyday society. In the case of the Klansmen, the photographs reveal traces of humanity in the imperfect stitching of the robes or the glimpse of an eye through an eyehole. Given the narrow palette of colors and the stark contrasts, the series moves almost into abstraction.
And, in a time when many people have grown numb from the deaths and atrocities reported on the news, Serrano's series of photographs in a morgue forcefully compel viewers to confront the reality of death. The photographs are in some way beautiful - even while they make the stomach flutter. The morgue series looks back in some ways to one of Serrano's early photographs, "Cabeza de Vaca" (1984). Here, a cow's head is mounted on a pedestal, looking, as the catalogue puts it, both "absurd and haunting."
The mission of the I.C.A.
Does an exhibition like Serrano's, which is likely to offend some viewers, have a place at a major research university? In words and actions, Chiappetta has argued that it does not. Murphy disagrees.
"We are a part of this academic institution, and I think original research is a very important part of that," he said Friday. "I see I.C.A. in some way chronicling the art of our time. To a great extent, we're like the avant garde of art history. We are documenting these artists in a very scholarly and intense way, both from the point of view of theory and the point of view of history. And so we're fulfilling the research mission of the University at the I.C.A."
Murphy added that this and other shows also fulfill "our other mission, which is the educational one. We make a number of programs around this exhibition-to give people access to our thinking about the exhibition, also to give people access to the artist, and to give them access to debate about this issue, which is our job." (Programs related to the Serrano show will be coming up in December and January, including an interview with the artist conducted by Murphy on December 7. For information, call 898-7108.)
"There is a lot of meat in this exhibition, and some people won't like it at all," Murphy continued. "But I think that in all cases, what it asks you to do is to meet with it and to sometimes argue against it and sometimes be moved with it."
Murphy noted that no federal or public funding was used to support "Andres Serrano: Works 1983-1993." As he put it, Murphy did not want the exhibition to become "a cause celebre," alluding to the controversy because the National Endowment for the Arts had funded work by people like the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the performance artist Karen Finley.
The I.C.A. exhibition and the catalogue were made possible by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; private donors; and the board, friends, and members of the Institute of Contemporary Art.
Closing at the I.C.A. on January 15, 1995, the exhibition will travel to the New Museum of Contemporary Art (New York); the Center for the Fine Arts (Miami); the Contemporary Art Museum (Houston); and the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago).