Piss Christ Destroyed by Radicals In Avignon
For the second time in 14 years a controversial US$25,000 photograph by New York Afro-Cuban artist Andres Serrano has been destroyed, this time by Catholic activists in Avignon, the City of the Popes, barely a week before Easter.
The work, one of two images vandalised, is known as the ‘Piss Christ’. It is a photo of a crucifix immersed in a glass of the artist’s urine and is not new, dating from 1987. It has been on show at Avignon as part of the Collection Lambert since December 2010. Labelled blasphemous by hard-line Catholics, it has angered believers in a number of countries where it has been shown.
Ironically Serrano himself is said to be “a believer ‘fascinated’ by the Catholic faith”.
According to the France Info website radical Catholic activists, who successfully infiltrated the Avignon gallery, attacked the photograph using a hammer, a pickaxe and paint bombs, damaging it beyond repair.
The attack was first reported on the microblogging site Twitter by France Culture journalist Frédéric Martel who wrote that the attack followed a protest by some 800 to 1500 Catholics outside the Avignon museum. The second work damaged was thought to be from Serrano’s Churches series, a photograph taken in a church in Paris.
In 1997 an earlier copy of the Piss Christ photo was destroyed by two youths using a hammer while it was on show at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia, where it had drawn heavy censure from leading Catholic church groups.
Writing earlier on the Phoenix New Times Blog Benjamin Leatherman described Serrano’s ‘offensive oeuvre’ as ‘controversial and contentious’ .
The Avignon attack is certain to raise an outcry in France, a country with a massive commitment to culture and the Arts. Pierre Haski writing on the Rue89 website noted: “The debate on secularism , or at least the place of religion and tolerance in our society, has rebounded where least expected, in Avignon and around a Andres Serrano work of art, regarded by Catholics as blasphemous”.
Update: Some 24 hours after the act of vandalism was first reported, Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand told France Info: “I’m shocked that someone can go into a museum, assault the guards and destroy an art work. This is unacceptable. If one is offended by a piece of art one should make a formal complaint at law: this is a fundamental principle of the French Republic. Any act of violence, destruction, and intolerance is unacceptable”. The minister acknowledged that the “Piss Christ” work may well offend many people but he unequivocally condemned the violence at the museum.
Listen to audio clip (in French) here.
For the past several days Catholic bishops and lay associations have made numerous demands for the removal of the work from the museum on the grounds that is insulting to believers.
Over the weekend before Easter protests outside the museum were staged by the Civitas Institute — a Catholic fundamentalist group with the self described goal of “the restoration of the social kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ” .
On Saturday, a procession marching behind a banner proclaiming “Piss Christ, do not accept the unacceptable” converged on the museum. According to a report in La Provence newspaper, Alain Escada, Secretary General of the Civitas Institute, then told his followers: “We live in a time of Christianophobia. Today the eve of Palm Sunday, is a day of anger for all Catholics in France, we demand that this work be removed from the Collection Lambert”.
Protests against the picture have reportedly taken place in Avignon over the past two weekends. Earlier Civitas organised a petition that demanded the withdrawal of the photograph from the exhibition which is ironically, entitled, ‘Je crois aux miracles’ (I believe in miracles).
Immediately after the attack the museum’s director,told France Info: “I am disgusted. That they attacked the ‘Piss Christ’ is one thing, but they also attacked a beautiful photo of the hands of a nun. The ignorance of these people is unbelievable.” He then ordered the museum closed.
Haski’s report for Rue 89 continues with this account: “In Provence, the abbot of Cacqueray, of the Society of St. Pius X, a breakaway group set up by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, said ‘anti-Christianity has developed in France in recent decades with the complicity of government; imagine if Mohammed or Anne Frank had been shown at an exhibition immersed in urine?”
(On January 21, 2009 the Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops in the Holy See, Cardinal Giovanni Battista lifted the automatic excommunication orders visited on the leaders of the Society of St. Pius which Lefebvre had founded in Lausanne, Geneva & Fribourg in 1970.)
Undoubtedly reflecting the concerns of those who oppose extremisms on all sides of the religious spectrum, Haski notes: “Freedom of artistic expression versus offence to the faith of believers is a debate that is as old as art and religion. In France it should be resolved in terms of the rules of secularism (les règles de la laïcité), which are there to ensure cohabitation for all in the public space. With this act fundamentalists have hijacked the debate using violence.”
As the video below notes the Avignon attack comes at a delicate time for France where the focus on secularism has been stepped up by the centre and the right to justify curbs on other unpopular faith manifestations such as Muslim veiling.
Story: Ken Pottinger
Further Reading: One hardhitting blogger, whose aim is to report on “what expats and the mainstream media (French and American alike) fail to notice (or fail to tell you) about French attitudes, principles, values, and official positions…” offers this version of the event.
UPDATE: According to a later AP report: “Young far-right Christian activists from the General Alliance Against Racism and for the Respect of the French and Christian Identity is taking the Collection Lambert to court Wednesday (April20) to try to have the crucifix photograph removed from the exhibit. The group denounced the photograph on its Web site, saying it “insults and injures Christians at the heart of their faith.”