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“Piss Christ”

In ethics, fallibilism on 15/06/2011 at 6:02 am

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. (WB Yeats, The Second Coming)

Piss Christ, the picture that enraged a thousand preachers in the US back in 1987, was destroyed by French Christian protesters.

I liked the photograph. If you didn’t know what the crucifix was submerged in, you’d think of it almost as … reverent. Serrano has always remained somewhat vague about its meaning, saying that it’s far more about the cheapening and commercialization of Christianity than a direct attack at Christ. Serrano was raised Roman Catholic, and might still be practicing to this day. Protesters, though, have always known that it is an affront to Christianity, and after several attempts at destroying the picture, have finally succeeded. Here is a photo of the aftermath.

Another print can be made in a few day’s work if the original positive is in decent shape. Assume for a moment that the protesters are not so stupid for this to be the primary purpose of the attack. Defacing the artwork was not their primary purpose; their primary purpose was intimidation towards individuals that dare publicly disagree with them, even if the disagreement is little more than a picture that conveys (at least in their minds) disgust. The protesters lost the war of arguments, so they resort to intimidation tactics.

If you can’t win an argument with words, then win with swords.

If I may make a conjecture about the mindset of the individuals that damaged the photograph, it would be that they see the Western world as flawed: until it can be traced by to one unitary ‘principle,’ the West will remain contradictory. It will be both religious and secular, liberal and conservative, Right-wing and Left-wing. There will be no historical progression: nations will rise and fall, but none will get closer to this ‘principle’ when there are warring factions in play.

I think that the West should be proud not to have one single idea, but many, good or bad. It’s better to have not one single faith, but many, good or bad.

Certainty is a driving need for some people, but uncertainty is central to the human condition, always accompanying us even if we should succeed. Everything we take to be solid is fragile; nothing is permanent. Civilization is always crumbling/growing in its ever-shifting structure. We have a duty to acknowledge our limits, and the conceit of our reasonableness paves the way for one ideology to stamp out all others, irrespective of its truth, while the awareness of our ignorance is the very basis for our freedom. The smallest voice speaking out against the multitude is the most important voice, because it must have taken a great deal of courage to speak out. As Popper said,

With the idol of certainty (including that of degrees of imperfect certainty or probability) there falls one of the defenses of obscurantism which bar the way of scientific advance. For the worship of this idol hampers not only the boldness of our questions, but also the rigor and the integrity of our tests. The wrong view of science betrays itself in the craving to be right; for it is not his possession of knowledge, of irrefutable truth, that makes the man of science, but his persistent and recklessly critical quest for truth. (Popper, Logic of Scientific Discovery, pp. 280-281)

Bill Moyers conducted with Sister Wendy Beckett, and I think she shines a light on the subject. I’ve included a rough transcript and link as follows:

I might be tempted to say that the Serrano’s Piss Christ is comforting art, in that everybody knows exactly what they think about it, and they’re not challenged in the slightest. Ninety percent of them think it’s blasphemous, and a few like me think it might not be. It might be rather hamfisted attempt to preach about the need to reverence the crucifix. … But that’s comforting art, because it’s so easy to have an opinion and a reaction. Everyone thinks they can do it. … He thinks he’s right, and he hasn’t had to think about it. … So nice to know I’m right.

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