Art Analysis: Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ

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I am going to explore Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ and determine if it is art. In order to answer the question: Does Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ fit the definition of art? we need to first determine what the definition of art is. Richard Anderson’s definition of art is as follows: “culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting, sensuous medium.”

Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ was a deeply controversial photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in the artists own urine. By the sounds of that, this can greatly upset people and can even be found offensive. Even the name of the photograph is controversial. Anything with the name “Piss Christ” can upset people and lead them to believe it was named that to dishonor Jesus. There are also people who don’t have much of a reaction when looking at this photograph. For example, people who don’t even know what they are looking at. Some people don’t even know what the crucifixion of Jesus was or what it was meant to represent. There are also people who believe this photograph was not meant to do harm, which it wasn’t according to Serrano. According to Serrano, the photograph “is a symbol that has lost its true meaning; the horror of what occured. It represents the crucifixion of a man who was tortured, humiliated and left to die on a cross for several hours.”

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In order to understand how and why people react to this photograph differently, we need to look at the context of art. There is Internal context and External context. Internal Context is the piece itself, which in this case is “Piss Christ”. External Context is gathered from other sources. For example, people who go to church regularly may be more impacted by this photograph than people who don’t. In church, we learn more about the crucifixion of Jesus and this photograph can be found offensive to them. However, some people who go to church may not be offended by this photograph because they know it was not meant to do harm, rather it was actually supposed to represent the way that Jesus died. However, we don’t necessarily need to go to church in order to get a reaction from this photograph. Some people may find this photograph offensive based on their religion as well. The setting of the piece is another important aspect to look at. When Piss Christ was first displayed at the Stux Gallery in New York in 1989, the piece was viewed as an ordinary piece of art. However, once it was displayed in Richmond, Virginia’s Museum of Fine Arts, the piece all of the sudden became controversial. The context of art is an important thing to look at because in one place it may be found of offensive, but if displayed in another place then all of the sudden it’s not. This could be due to the kind of people living there, since everyone views the photograph differently. There are people who may find it offensive and there are people who may not find it offensive.

In order to determine if Andre Serrano’s is in fact a work of art, we need to look at the definition of art and components of art. When looking at Richard Anderson’s definition of art I do believe that the photograph fits it. Piss Christ does have a culturally significant meaning. According to Serrano, it was supposed to represent the way that Jesus died, and the urine is what came out of him. When we look at the second part of the definition of art, is an affecting, sensuous medium. The medium in this case is the urine. Lastly, we need to discuss the components of art to determine if Piss Christ is art. Every piece of artwork needs to possess these three components: Form, Subject, and Content. Form is the organization or arrangement of visual elements to create a unified design. The elements in this piece are unified because it is not separated in any way. Subject is the person, object, event or idea on which an artwork is based. In this case, its Jesus. Content is the emotional and/or intellectual meaning or message of an artwork and Andre Serrano does explain the message that Piss Christ is supposed to send.

Even though, Piss Christ was a deeply controversial piece, I do think it is an example of artwork because it meets all of the criteria explained in Richard Anderson’s definition of art. The piece does possess the three components of art as well. This is all we need in order to determine if something is in fact a piece of art.


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