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.