The Scandalous Art of Paul Fryer

Twenty years after Andres Serrano debuted Piss Christ to shocked believers worldwide, Christendom is again up in arms over another work of art. Fundamentalist antipathy toward the arts is well-documented, and artists like Serrano and Damien Hirst have ensured that this feud isn’t likely to die soon. British artist Paul Fryer, a churchgoing Christian himself, has joined the fray with three new pieces.

The first two are variations of the same piece, Pieta:

Unlike traditional pietas, such as Michelangelo’s, this Jesus is not cradled by the Virgin Mary, but by an electric chair. The work is displayed in a French cathedral whose Monsignor explains the work thusly: “[The goal is] to make us aware once more that someone being nailed to a cross is a scandal. Usually, we no longer feel any real emotions in the face of something truly scandalous, the crucifixion.” The piece challenges us to see modern methods of capital punishment as equally bizarre and barbaric as ancient Roman methods. Fryer seems to be expressing incredulity at state-sanctioned murder in the 21st century, asking us to be just as uncomfortable with a convicted felon in the electric chair as we are with Christ in it.

Fryer’s latest incarnation of Pieta takes this a step further. He keeps the chair, but replaces the white Jesus with an extremely emaciated, dirty black Jesus. Fryer explains his decision: “The figure of Christ isn’t just in the electric chair. He’s starved and he’s black. Hundreds more black people have been executed in the chair than white people. More black people starve to death than white people by what you could call a significant margin, too.” He goes on to again profess amazement that we’re still executing people 2,000 years after Jesus’ own death.

These both might incite some level of outrage among noble culture warriors, but Fryer really sends them over the edge with his third piece, entitled The Privilege of Dominion:

The pointed title is a reference, of course, to Genesis 1:28. The work, according to Fryer, is meant to “to highlight the plight of the Western Lowland Gorillas” — a critically endangered species — “and to challenge the Christian notion that animals do not have souls.” Unfortunately, it appears that most criticism has less to do with conservation or the orthodox theology of personhood. Rather the attacks rely on an uncharitable understanding of what Fryer is depicting. Seminary professor Claude Mariottini’s reaction is typical: “This portrayal of Christ as an ape is a perversion of a Christian symbol. There are many other way of calling attention to the plight of gorillas, but not at the expense of Christianity. This is not a work of art.”

Ironically, Mariottini accuses Fryer of portraying Christ as an ape merely one sentence after quoting Fryer’s real motivation. Not that Mariottini would probably find this any less offensive, but Fryer is crucifying a gorilla, not depicting Christ as a gorilla. Furthermore, Mariottini mistakenly believes that “art” is simply an honorific we apply to beautiful things, instead of thinking of it as a category of things (regardless of whether that category is essentialist or not). The Privilege of Dominion is art, and good art, which isn’t to say that might not also be blasphemous art.

I do not know for sure, but I suspect the fundamentalist’s reaction to these pieces exhibit a peculiar protectiveness of the imagery of Christianity, as well as a sad aversion to challenging art — especially the avant garde and anything lacking “beauty.” As if the cross was ever anything but scandalous and transgressive. It’s worth quoting here a bit from a poem Andrew Hudgins wrote about that other outrageous artwork, Serrano’s Piss Christ: “We have grown used to beauty without horror. We have grown used to useless beauty.” Fryer provides the horror, he provides the challenge, and it is up to us to reflect and discuss.

5 thoughts on “The Scandalous Art of Paul Fryer

  1. i’d argue with your assessment of the privilege of dominion as good art. i also wouldn’t qualify it as bad art – it’s fairly decent.

    the piece doesn’t hold up well without the artist’s explanation. that’s not all that unusual, and does not qualify it as good/bad, but it’s true. without an explanation it’s more of a sensational piece. with an explanation it’s more nuanced, but only slightly. it communicates exactly what the author writes – i think killing these creatures is wrong; i think these creatures have souls. it can foster discussion, which is important, but it’s quite heavy handed with an explanation, and simultaneously sensational and bland without one. neither of which i would say qualify it as particularly good.

    IMHO.

    but i do really like the Pieta pieces. their visual imagery seems to stand really well on its own. i had never heard of them before – thanks for the post.

  2. Thanks for commenting. I don’t really disagree with your assessment of The Privilege of Dominion, and also much prefer Pieta (though I couldn’t find a great shot of the updated version).

    But my artistic assessment of either would have little to do with the need for the artist’s explanation. Under my philosophy of art, the artist’s articulation of the meaning & context of his piece is extremely important in qualifying whether something is good or bad art (or non-art; ex. propaganda). In fact, I think our discussion about the work is very important too. A work that truly stands alone, context-free, requires no further analysis, and inspires no dialogue is, in my opinion, more likely to be kitsch than art.

  3. huh, you’re right. i’m having a hard time explaining why this piece isn’t something i respect.

    i guess what i get hung up on is his purposefully highlighting the plight of the western lowland gorillas. because of how saturated we are with “save the X” messages, we already know how we feel about this subject – uncomfortable, a little upset, and mostly complacent. when we see protests, advertisements, special news reports, or art installations, we are able to immediately apply those feelings to whatever plight they are currently addressing.

    so i’d say that specific purpose of his piece actually means the viewer need not give it further analysis. we already know what we feel about this subject.

    that immediate reaction of ours seems to be what guided the creation of the piece in the first place.

    i guess i just don’t think it taps into what he thinks it taps into. instead of tapping into empathy it taps into my well cultivated indifference. and forcing me to view my indifference doesn’t horrify me. i’m used to constantly being reminded i’m indifferent.

  4. I liked your last couple of sentences, and it’s probably the reaction of most people. I think you’re basically arguing, with some merit, that it’s simply yawn-inducing propaganda.

    If anything, it’ll tap into a “general moralistic outrage” (Zizek) in a few that quickly dies out when it comes to actually doing anything. These kinds of people (and this critique mostly applies to leftists) usually mistake “becoming informed” (Fryer enlightened us!) with affecting real change.

    Maybe the Jane Goodalls get worked up, I don’t know. I think more likely it’s just going to piss off a certain subsection of the population and actually inspire basically nobody.

  5. You are omitting the fact of Angus Fairhursts’ suicide. The gorilla was Angus symbol and I imagine, as a close friend, Paul was not unaware of this when he made the piece. Though Fryer says he isn’t interested in art about art, this may well have born an element of tribute to a sadly lost friend even if Paul chose not to mention this at the time of exhibitting

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