I was young when Serrano’s Immersion (Piss Christ) first made waves, but not so young to miss out on the media frenzy. This was in roughly the same period that Martin Scorsese was catching hell for his adaptation of Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ. I remember loitering around the local video store with my best friend Joey as he tried to talk me into placing the store’s lone copy of the film in the nearby trash can. It was a different time. Today this simple act of censorship would be as meaningless as the very idea of the video store, but at the time this would have effectively meant that the entire community (such as it was) would not have had access to the film, which wasn’t sold in nearby stores and would never have been offered in our town’s one-screen movie theater. I hadn’t yet formed anything like a coherent stance with respect to organized religion and its preoccupations with the culture wars, but beyond my early certainty that religious dogma offered me nothing of substance, I already intuited that there was something else amiss here. The attention to censoring individual creative acts seemed overblown and laughable in one sense, but also repressive. It was also quietly terrifying.
But for this very reason, the moral crusades against Immersion were always more interesting to me than the piece itself, albeit just barely. Ultimately, the only thing less shocking than provocative art is religious outrage about it, so it was not as if any of the venom directed against Serrano’s work offered any kind of meaningful vision for art or piety or freedom of expression. With respect to works like Serrano’s, the provocation of such work is part of what the artwork is, part of its meaning; and one of the audiences it hails is the audience that cannot resist the impulse to censor, condemn, or destroy it. This is not to say that Serrano’s piece, or others similarly targeted across the years by self-appointed arbiters of taste and morality, actively sought censorship or the threat of destruction, but it is the case that such works often succeed best by evoking their strongest responses from those who abhor them. This is one of the ways that traditional art forms compete for attention in a period when their connections to cultural life seem ever more tenuous. In fact, the impact of such work would be radically altered or diminished otherwise. If this is true to some extent of all works of art, it is truer of Serrano’s work (and truer of Immersion in particular) than most publicly exhibited work in America since Mapplethorpe. The ‘scandal’ of the work of art becomes ever more critical to art’s survival when that art’s admirers and backers are no longer sufficient to guarantee it a meaningful place in culture.
Serrano’s work, long a subject of rage, was attacked again this past year by similarly motivated zealots with hammers. When we hear about vandals hammering away at art, there are generally two accounts: the deranged (witness the recent attacks on Gauguin, or older attacks on Michelangelo’s David or the Pietà) and the coldly “rational” (and typically religiously motivated) actor, as appears to have been the case yet again with Serrano. In their fervor and haste, the would-be censors only slightly damaged Serrano’s original photograph. Most of the damage was to the protective glass that covered it. And yet we could count on this act of vandalism to allow for yet another reliable revival of the ‘debate’ about art and censorship, if only briefly and superficially. Each act of vandalism returns the artwork to a public consciousness that ordinarily has no appetite or interest in it, resurrecting the weathered corpse of the culture wars once more before returning to its place on the periphery of the worlds of art and religion.
For this reason, it would make more sense to acknowledge that the glass that ‘protects’ famous or provocative works of art can also be understood as an integral part of the work itself. Protective measures are now so fully ingrained in what controversial art on public display actually is that we have begun to take those measures for granted, treating them as necessary if regrettable appendages that, one hopes, do not impede one’s access to ‘the work itself’ too greatly. Consider, for example, the vast array of visible and invisible measures designed to protect Da Vinci’s La Gioconda while still allowing for maximum tourist traffic and generation of revenue through the Louvre. To treat damage to the glass covering as somehow distinct from damage to the thing itself is to miss the larger point about art and the armor it now wears to shield itself from its destroyers.
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While in transit after a touring exhibition of the work, the two glass panels that house Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even accidentally shattered, sending a large, fine spray of cracks across its torso. Duchamp later claimed that the breaks improved it. Whether or not he meant it, it’s true. Its beautiful and abstruse — but ultimately rather clinical — symbology gains something dramatic once those breaks are introduced, as a scar gives character to an otherwise merely handsome face. What is being introduced into these works in such moments is an intrusion of secondary narratives, piling up atop the existing narratives of the work’s initial creation, with its own complex weave of the biographical and the historical, the social and the economic.
So there is damage by accident and damage by design. If the former can become aesthetically generative (if not socially acceptable) why not the latter too? It would seem that the fundamental difference between the cases of Serrano or Michelangelo on the one hand and Duchamp’s cracked glass on the other are less about intentionality and more about which kinds of narratives the artist- and curator-classes wish to append or expunge. The happy accident that elevates Duchamp’s piece only differs meaningfully from the actions of angry men with hammers by virtue of who can or should be allowed to participate in a narrative of the meaningful shaping forces of a work of art. Damage is damage; but we treat one type differently not only because it is one of the most nakedly displayed acts of thuggery in the culture wars, but also because we believe that accident has a (perhaps essential) place in high Romantic notions of artmaking, while external censorship and wanton destruction do not or should not. The simplest explanation for why we believe this is because censorship takes an explicit stand against the freedom and expression of art, and one cannot be for censorship and for the freedom of art simultaneously. But could one be for damage itself as an aesthetic principle?
In an interview with Pierre Cabanne, Duchamp had referred to The Bride as “a ‘delay in glass,’ as you would say a poem in prose or a spittoon in silver.” Here the ‘delay’ is something suspended, perpetually unsettled, as something static that calls forth some type of movement or energy to disrupt its stasis. Censorship and willful destruction of art or anything else are cretinous and cowardly; but they are also forms of movement and energy. The oppressed and abject artwork is not improved by the censorship that aims to destroy it; and yet, if the work of art survives, it is differently empowered. It begins to acquire the aura that its total acceptance and embrace in the culture would not allow it to acquire. In a culture where non-conformist or minority art (like a minor politics) is cast as superfluous, effete, and indulgent, the emergence of the men with hammers marks the stage where those claims about art’s insignificant status are revealed as absolute lies. Whatever provokes the destructive forces of censorship cannot be an idle pursuit or a superfluous addition to human life. It must be absolutely critical and essential for life. This is a truth art’s censors cannot abide. Art of the oldest, most interpellated or ‘bourgeois’ nature, even forms that are primitive or exhausted, cannot in fact be static in an age when its basest critics are reduced to deploying against it the first kinds of crude tools our ancestors crafted millennia ago.
Which brings us back to the David. Like the Manhattan of every third-rate action film’s dreams of destruction, Michelangelo’s David has, for good or ill, taken on the aura of the object of western art par excellence, in part because of its monumentality, beauty, and compositional elegance, but also because Man (or at least a Florentine notion of Renaissance Man) is its putative subject, much more so than many of the other great works of Western art. In Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), David now appears with a long metal rod filling the gap where a section of his lower leg once stood, a war-ravaged colossus guarded by hounds and protected from the depredations of a humankind in rapid decline. Though we are not explicitly given the statue’s future history, or of the precise paths by which it traveled from the Accademia in Florence to come to rest in a decaying England as a battered remnant, we can conjecture that this new damage (really just an extension of the earlier historical damage of the foot, now amplified, extended upward like an infection) may have been a mere innocent casualty of violence directed elsewhere. In an age of war and decline, ‘collateral damage’ becomes increasingly common and increasingly widespread, dismembering people and the mere images of people with equal abandon. Or perhaps, given what we hear in the film about the willful destruction visited upon other Great Works of Art, David’s hobbling was the result of overt, intentional vandalism: the return of the men with hammers.
Children of Men frames the question of art’s preservation in the face of humankind’s demise as somehow participating in both of these possibilities: art becomes yet another object of popular (and now not merely peripheral) outrage, depicting as it does classical forms and eternal truths now revealed to be as hollow as the social and political platitudes that for so long sustained important cultural illusions; but its damages are also the covert sign of hasty, haphazard salvation of art for art’s sake, of an accidental or willful decline in attention to the cultural works of humankind (Serrano’s glass, and Duchamp’s). In piecemeal, desperate fashion, art is being saved from the conflagration, even if it appears in this moment that humankind cannot be similarly saved. Art here is at once more likely to provoke outrage and violence and to serve as a haven from violence, because what it represents, the histories and myths it carries, is now in these late moments being subjected to newer and deeper scrutiny, exposed to rawer emotions. David’s majestic equipoise in the face of approaching apocalypse would thus be intolerable to many and incalculably precious to others, and thus an irresistible target for vandals and preservationists alike.
The David of Michelangelo’s time and imagination was and was not the Biblical David: against the behemoth of the Biblical Goliath, and dependent for at least some measure of its artistic power on the continued force of that story in the lives of the Renaissance faithful; and yet also the David very much shaped of his time, the New Man of the emerging golden age that Michelangelo helped usher into existence. The deep irony here is that by the time of Children of Men‘s narrative (and in fact we could say the time of the film’s creation, our time, and not just the dystopian near-future it summons), David is Goliath. His monumentality and perfection no longer come down to us as reflections of fertile, radically empowered selves, but as the antithesis to daily human life in the face of global want and calamity. The David is now the giant to be pulled down and brought low. His once-ravishing, brave, astonishing gaze is now hollow; we are the ones confronting a behemoth, not him. His scale and positioning for centuries compels us to behold his stance, his atttitude, and his frame, while his gaze, the single most important element of the entire edifice, is not placed in a position that we could meet directly. It is not what he is beholding, as the original Biblical story would have it, but the appearance that he has turned away from those of us who beheld him: high, piercing, his gaze instead looks out beyond humankind to something evidently grander and more pressing. The most confident and dynamic stare in the history of Western art (Caravaggio placing a distant second) now appears as an affront to the fading dignity of humankind, which has lost its capacity to reproduce itself and imagine a future. The statue faces down his unseen foe, unafraid, exuding power and confidence, while around him, the dying world cannot summon any corresponding bravery. The goliath of annihilation is too vast, too real; and David’s aesthetic perfection, if it cannot be emulated, if it cannot serve the needs and desires of a world in flames, must either be destroyed or spirited away to safety in order to prevent its destruction. To his cold marble we have grafted colder steel, as if even the great dense stones of earth could not be trusted to hold their shape any longer.
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For now at least, to see the Pietà or the Mona Lisa in situ means to see the glass meant to shield them in the bargain. (Not so — not yet at least — with our current David and his visibly vandalized toes.) Like so many other mediated experiences of ours, art — and not just visual art — now arrives for us under glass, peeking out from beyond the glare of its enclosures or across our smudged digital screens, the size of a hand or the size of a wall, increasingly fenced off from us in either case. In the absence of unmediated embodied presence before the thing itself, art dims or shimmers under the protective glazes of our century. Does Piss Christ hereafter undergo the requisite repairs to reconstitute itself in its ‘original’ image, offering a simulacrum of a simulacrum for its future admirers and enemies? Or does it absorb the shattered glass and carry it along, like David’s missing leg, its form and content now transformed indelibly, making its solitary effort to the broad cultural task of reminding us that materiality will always matter?