Beauty Will Save the World

It's Easter and, as per usual during this season, I'm wrestling with my Angels of Faith and Doubt.

Every year the process begins with me giving something up for Lent, and then telling myself that this act isn’t really an act done out of faith (I have too much doubt for such a thing), but that in general it's just a good idea to once a year hit the reset button on some part of one's life that needs retooling, and the time one would spend on whatever activity that’s just been reset can now be allocated elsewhere.

This year, I gave up the political blogosphere (ditto for last year) but I also added the talking heads and political debate shows on TV. Huge for me. No Chris Matthews or Hannity. No Glenn Beck. No Rachel Maddow. No debating, no gossip. No more obsessing over being “in the know.” And no more yelling at the TV and feeling smug and superior to the idiocy and speciousness of the arguments coming from those with whom I disagree. None of that.

I suppose those more devout than I give up TV altogether. (I remember kids at church when I was growing up who did that—they seemed “off” somehow.) Or maybe they give up other all-consuming distractions like email or their iPods or obsessing over weight loss, and then use their refocused time and energy for prayer, I suppose, or supplication of some kind. Or maybe they…well, who knows what they do. This season, I’ve focused on what I know: the poems, and I’ve really got some good work done toward a new manuscript. For me, during Lent, poetry, of course, always winds up getting the bulk of the newly found ration of my revitalized temporal focus, and the writing is, I suppose, also a kind of prayer and act of devotion. But back to my confused emotional/spiritual state…

Piss Christ, photograph, 1987
I’ve felt this way since Monday when I read the news that Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" had been attacked at a gallery showing in Avignon on Palm Sunday: Catholic fundamentalists wielding hammers and knives.

"Piss Christ" is, clearly, blasphemy to many. I suppose if you take any religious icon and immerse it in urine or any bodily product you're bound to enrage the pious. My reaction to the news was also anger and frustration, though not with Serrano's work. Actually, I've always found the piece to be quite beautiful and moving, and in its destruction, I think there’s something even more provocative and beautiful than in the original. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

I frequently bring “Piss Christ” into my intro rhetoric/composition classes when discussing how rhetorical situations function and the role context plays in an audience’s reception of a text. I’ll put the image of Serrano’s crucifix up on the screen, without any background on the artist or the title or really any info at all, and ask for my students’ impressions and reactions. Consistently the students comment on how Christ looks bathed in the light of heaven, or how they find the image on the whole to be spiritually moving. Those who aren’t Christian or religious usually say the iconography doesn’t speak to them in the same way as the majority of students, but that they can appreciate the color and the light, that it’s “good” art, etc.

After talking about the image, I give a brief bio of Serrano, describe his process and some of his other pieces, and tell them this image is titled “Piss Christ” and about the composition processes behind the production of the image. Next, I ask them to write a metacognitive response about how their relationship to the image has changed now that they’ve been provided with this additional context. Their responses are almost always the same. They’re surprised and disgusted. Some of them laugh nervously. Invariably they wind up writing about the role of art, about how this piece is immoral, and, of course, about federal funding of the arts. They wind up writing about the surrounding rhetorical situation and context at the expense of a discussion of the text, the thing itself, Serrano’s photograph. They abandon the beauty of the thing that initially they found to be so moving.

I think the way my students write about “Piss Christ” is kind of like my relationship to Easter, to the crucifixion and resurrection. My frenetic concern is with my own surrounding contexts, all my swirling questions of faith and doubt, and all the implications of religious faith and my theological and philosophical hang-ups, at the expense of what is really quite moving in this season: Sacrifice leads to beauty. Death leads to beauty. ("Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, / Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams / And our desires.") And it seems to me that, somehow—maybe it’s the commercialized hullabaloo of Easter nowadays, though I think it’s more systemic than just that—Christians forget and even outright shun what is most beautiful in this season: our humanity and the humanity of Christ.

Piss Christ, damaged April 17, 2011 via The Guardian

Serrano’s “Piss Christ” is, to me, paradoxically, a non-cognitive reminder of what I absorbed in Sunday School as a boy: God Made Flesh. To become one of us, to become human, Christ may as well have plunged himself into a jar of urine. It doesn’t get much more real than that. And now that the image has been destroyed, it is no longer just an image of incarnation, it’s an image of the Incarnation’s interaction with and impact on humanity and humanity’s reaction to it. Shock and rage are, I think, a legitimate response to the beauty of “Piss Christ,” and the human actions of the devout protestors, too, make me think Dostoyevsky might actually have been right: “Beauty will save the world.” And that's something I can believe in, or at least try to.

One of the projects I’ve restarted during Lent is a collection of essays on contemporary Christian poets, and one of those poets is Andrew Hudgins who's written the only poem (at least the only one I’m aware of) about Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” So, for Easter, here are two poems by Andrew Hudgins.


Piss Christ

          Andres Serrano, 1987

If we did not know it was cow’s blood and urine,
if we did not know 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.

We are born between the urine and the feces,
Augustine says, and so was Christ, if there was a Christ,
skidding into this world as we do
on a tide of blood and urine. Blood, feces, urine—
the fallen world is made of what we make.
He peed, ejaculated, shat, wept, bled—
bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross, and blood and urine smeared his legs—
the Piss Christ thrown in glowing blood, the whole
and irreducible point of his descent:
God plunged in human waste, and radiant.

Andrew Hudgins
from Ecstatic in the Poison

Christ as Gardener

The boxwoods planted in the park spell LIVE.
I never noticed it until they died.
Before, the entwined green had smudged the word
unreadable. And when they take their own advice
again – come spring, come Easter – no one will know
a word is buried in the leaves. I love the way
that Mary thought her resurrected Lord
a gardener. It wasn’t just the broad-brimmed hat
and muddy robe that fooled her: he was that changed.
He looks across the unturned field, the riot
of unscythed grass, the smattering of wildflowers.
Before he can stop himself, he’s on his knees.
He roots up stubborn weeds, pinches the suckers,
deciding order here – what lives, what dies,
and how. But it goes deeper even than that.
His hands burn and his bare feet smolder. He longs
to lie down inside the long, dew-moist furrows
and press his pierced side and his broken forehead
into the dirt. But he’s already done it –
passed through one death and out the other side.
He laughs. He kicks his bright spade in the earth
and turns it over. Spring flashes by, then harvest.
Beneath his feet, seeds dance into the air.
They rise, and he, not noticing, ascends
on midair steppingstones of dandelion,
of milkweed, thistle, cattail, and goldenrod.

Andrew Hudgins
from The Never-Ending