For artist Andres Serrano, much hasn’t changed since the 1980s. Late in that decade, his photograph Piss Christ, which depicted a plastic crucifix submerged in a vat of the artist’s urine, became the center of national controversy. The North Carolina-based Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art awarded Serrano a prize for the work that was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. As Piss Christ traveled around the country, two Republican Senators—Alfonse D’Amato and Jesse Helms—launched a campaign to defund the NEA based on the “blasphemy” of the work. Today, similar battles over funding for the arts still rage.
A selection of over 30 years of Serrano's work—now on view now at gallerist Jack Shainman’s Kinderhook, New York art space, The School—also reveal a keen and prescient perspective on the controversies that have defined America for decades. Serrano’s America series from the early aughts, comprised of portraits of Americans from all different backgrounds, includes portraits of both Donald Trump and a convert to Islam (plus Yoko Ono, the only subject who ever instructed Serrano to shoot her a certain way). In Torture, Serrano stages scenes of volunteers shackled, stripped, and hooded like tortured prisoners. The artist spoke about the reception to his work and why, finally, he’s hopeful for some change.
THE STANDARD: Americans, though not Europeans, continue to be scandalized by your work. What does this say about our culture?
ANDRES SERRANO: I think it all comes down to one image, Piss Christ. Because of that image, I will always be a “controversial artist.” Everything after Piss Christ needs to be seen by some people in terms of controversy or provocation. I did a show called Shit in 2008, here in New York. Even before the show opened at Yvon Lambert Gallery, I saw people writing about it online and criticizing me, saying things like, “Oh, he’s just being provocative.” One person said, “He’s just doing it for attention.” And I thought: What artist, what writer, filmmaker, you know, even plumber, what worker doesn’t do work and feel like they want to do it and get the boss’s attention? They want to do it and get a good reaction from the public and their peers. Of course we all do it for the attention! I feel like, at this point, it’s not the work. It’s not even me. They need to hate something, and I’m the target.
Seems like there are better things to get inflamed about.
I learned years ago with Piss Christ, when Jesse Helms and Alfonse D’Amato attacked it and they got people in the Senate enraged over it—I think it was a good soundbite. They realized it played well with their constituents. It’s easy to attack something for symbolic purposes, even though it’s a very insignificant issue, compared to other things in the world. It’s almost like a thief or a con man who shows you one hand and says, “Look at this hand,” while he robs you with the other.
Do you see any of that now—using art as a scapegoat?
I don’t know if artists have become the scapegoat yet. There’s a lot more on the totem pole of scapegoats, but eventually artists will probably be scapegoats as well. What gets the most attention is what gets people the most upset. I think, so far, art has not gotten anyone too upset.
Certainly the National Endowment for the Arts did not win it. I was denounced in Congress and then the senators turned to the NEA for answers. But instead of defending what they stood for and doing what they were supposed to do, they succumbed to intimidation and were apologetic. These politicians automatically got a win. They started to dismantle the NEA, and by the end of it, they destroyed the budget by half. And eventually they got rid of the ability of artists to get funded directly from the NEA. I don’t think the NEA had the stomach to defend itself, and that’s where the problem lies.
Now I hear that the NEA may be completely eliminated, which would be a shame. When you think about the NEA’s budget, it’s been broken down to be like a fraction of a fraction of a penny of the tax payers’ money. Politicians erroneously believe that arts are the enemy, when they're not. You know governments in Europe and Third World countries give a lot more to the arts than we do. The people need more than bread and water. When you attack the arts, you’re sort of attacking yourself as a country.
You’ve lived in New York your whole life. Do you think there is also a tension between Middle America and the coasts?
There are many people outside New York who may not know who Jeff Koons is, but they would still like to see an exhibition of, say, Caravaggio, come to their town. If they have the right kinds of exhibitions coming their way, they’ll go see them. We shouldn’t be elitist about art and think that art is only for intellectuals and people inside the art world. That’s the mistake and that’s where people get turned off art, when people think that it’s a highfalutin club composed of a bunch of snobs. That’s the perception we have to get rid of. Art is for everyone.
How do we do that?
We bring exhibitions to these communities that they’d appreciate. Maybe in Middle America, people would want to see a Grant Wood or LeRoy Neiman exhibition. And then, next time you give them somebody else who they didn’t appreciate before, but because they liked the Neiman show so much, they’re open to seeing someone else’s work. I think it’s important not to be judgmental about audiences and recognize that all communities could profit from art. Especially in a time when there’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression—art gives you hope. It gives you something to look forward to.
I started the America series in 2001 as a result of the attack on September 11th. I wanted to define America for anyone who didn’t know who America is. I felt like the people who attacked America attacked us as the enemy. I wanted to show who the enemy is. I feel that my America series is as valid today as it was then because it was a microcosm of America. When you’re the artist, you have the choice to create your own world, so that’s the America I created for myself. Of course, in 2004 I did not know that Donald Trump was going to run for president or eventually become president of the United States, but I always feel like, when I create a work of art, it’s because I feel something and I see something, and obviously sometimes it’s almost visionary.
There’s that element of deception, too, in some of your work—you can’t tell what Piss Christ really depicts just by looking at the image.
That’s why I title my works the way I do, in a very literal way sometimes. I like to give as much of it away as possible in the photograph. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s a simple image. Depending on who you are, the photograph could have more than one meaning.
And I read that you don’t see your work as political, but rather as an act of conscience. Given the new political reality, are you driven to make anything in particular?
I was a teenager in the sixties. The sixties, for me, were a time of revolution or political action, also intellectual and musical. It was the best time of our lives, as far as music was concerned. There was a lot going on. Until now, I lamented the fact that people are more interested in their iPhones. I’ve been very concerned and disappointed by the lack of interest, curiosity, and change in the past couple decades. So I have to say, this is probably the most exciting time I’ve seen since the sixties.
And have you been compelled to make any new or different types of work?
I’m working on something literary, a work of satire. It blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction, like reality these days. We don’t know what to believe, you know. It’s like the old joke: who are you going to believe, me or your eyes?
Have you ever wanted to veer from the format you’ve used for years?
No, I like keeping it simple. I like using the same equipment—I’ve had the same camera for twenty-five years. And that’s why I’ve said I’m not a photographer, because if I was a photographer, I would have learned how to print in the days when there were enlargers in dark rooms. I never went into a darkroom. I wasn’t interested in printing, equipment, or technique. I’m not interested in anything except the pictures in my head. I try to recreate those in as simple a way as possible.
There is an alteration—red tape—to the History of Sex images, which depict sex acts. Was this all due to vandalism, or did you manipulate them yourself?
Neo-Nazis vandalized them in Sweden. Five neo-Nazis with hoods over their heads stormed the museum, attacked the work with sledgehammers, and then eventually they made a video of the attack with heavy metal music. They likened the work to degenerate art from the time of the Nazis. When we got the works back from Sweden, they were taped because they wanted to preserve them. I think it’s very interesting because the work then has another dimension, you know. It’s different from what I created.
I thought all that was kind of funny. Once you put something into the public domain, you can’t take it back. And so, you know, every time we go to the edge a little more and a little more, and it becomes more acceptable. It’s like the effect of shock is no longer shocking after you’ve been conditioned to it. The best way to not upset people is by introducing things slowly, so that you build up to it. So by the time you give them what you really want to show them, they say okay, we can take it.
Have you done that with your own work? Have you gradually introduced more shocking ideas?
I was actually thinking of the president. The president was very good at setting himself up in such a way that he already told you what he was going to do. And, you know… he doesn’t outrage or astound us anymore because we expect it of him. And in a way, I guess, my work is like that too. After Piss Christ, nothing has been as controversial.
After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, I know you wrote a piece for Creative Time, advocating the freedom of expression. Recently, after the riots at Berkeley that barred Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking, some people pitted free expression against limiting hate speech.
I think we gotta let it all hang out. The students at Berkeley have a right to voice their opinion. They don’t want to see him. Just as I think the school has a right to invite him if they feel like inviting him. Of course you‘ve got to let it all hang out. If the protest was so overwhelming that he and others felt like, you know what, it’s better for him not to come, then so be it.