Art history is as synonymous with controversy and moral indignation as it is beauty, from Caravaggio’s syphilitic self portrait to Courbet’s The Origin of The World, Duchamp’s urinal and Postmodernism. Artists seemingly express themselves according to their own needs and desires, with apparent disregard for the sensibilities of the viewing public.
In our increasingly globalised world issues surrounding freedom of expression versus the protection of moral norms continue to polarise communities along religious, aesthetic and ethical lines. Questions asking what is right or wrong and indeed what right and wrong mean, have formed the nucleus of ethical debate since the birth of philosophy. Moral frameworks exist in societies as mechanisms to allow them to function, balancing the needs of society against individual freedoms. Through an evolution of systems of laws, conventions, social contracts and religion a general morality is codified. Despite the implied societal benefit brought about by the adherence to moral codes, the right to self expression is also enshrined in Western law. From the American First Amendment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act, freedom of speech and expression is implicit.
This essay will consider various critical perspectives and seek to contextualise the work of Marcus Harvey (Myra, 1995) and Andres Serrano (Piss Christ, 1987) within relevant historical, social and moral frameworks in order to establish an understanding as to why the right to self expression should be protected ahead of the general moral codes of the wider society.
Marcus Harvey’s ‘Myra’ is a large monochrome portrait of a woman’s face; upon closer inspection it is possible to see that the image has been created from a composite of hundreds of black, white and grey prints of tiny hands, creating a pixelated aesthetic.
The subject of the painting is Myra Hindley who, as an accomplice to Ian Brady was responsible for the murder of five children between 1963 and 1965. Harvey’s painting is different to a typical portrait; rather than paint Hindley from sketches or photographic studies he chose to recreate her infamous custodial photograph, which itself was iconic having been embedded into the consciousness of the British public through years of media use. The painting was bought by art collector Charles Saatchi and brought to prominence by it’s
inclusion in the Young British Artists show “Sensation” in 1997, the work was re-produced and
Myra, Marcus Harvey, 1995
used as the chief promotional image of the show propelling Harvey’s vision into the mainstream.
From the outset public reaction to ‘Myra’ was intensely fierce, family members of the victims and the public called for it’s removal from Saatchi’s gallery, however the painting remained. Violating a basic ethical principle that “The right thing to do is that which is likely to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people” Thompson (2006: p.65) Harvey had created something which despite causing offence, was allowed to exist within the public sphere in which it offended. Such artwork can be labeled as ‘transgressive’, described in Cashell (2009: p.1) as something which shocks by subverting conservatism and traditional moral beliefs, by going ‘too far’ and violating enlightened culture making it impossible to engage with as one would traditional artworks. In order that this be the case there must be a greater, perceived societal value to allowing the transgressive to exist and indeed be celebrated.
In order to understand the transgression in the case of ‘Myra’ one must attempt to understand the impact of the Moors Murders on the public psyche of Britain. In the new age of mass media, images of the case were beamed across the nation’s TV screens. A single image more than any other became symbolic of the crime: Hindley’s custodial photograph. The photograph is so powerfully imbued with meaning that Harvey’s representation of it created an immediate lens on to every possible connotation of the image with it’s encoded signfiers of murder, peadophillia, infantacide and perhaps most importantly the social taboo of a woman harming a child and the sanctity of childhood. This photograph, the index of a killer, through decades of repeated media use became a symbol of evil enforced with semantic rigour. Hindley’s mugshot is an iconic image, revered and reviled, it is the ultimate totem: “the photo can no longer be regarded without the knee-jerk reaction of merging Hindley the woman, serving her sentence for the heinous and unforgivable crimes she assisted in and perpetrated, with Hindley the monster, an embodiment of an evil without kinds or degrees.” Campbell (2011, http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/campbellevilpaper.pdf)
Of course Harvey’s painting is not the photograph, it is indexical, merely the essence of the photograph; his representation of the nadir of humanity. In defence of his work Cashell (2009: p53-67) Harvey describes Myra as purely aesthetic, informing the image of Hindley with a child’s innocence in order to re-establish physical recollection, he describes the original photograph as having a hideous attraction and being powerfully ambiguous. He goes further by stating that the painting’s subject is the photograph, not Myra Hindley and therefore to seek to read the works signifieds is a mistake. Cashell describes this as as absurd as claiming that Myra is as self-referential as abstract modernist painting. Subverting the genre of the portrait as a celebration of a life, Harvey’s work inflates the scale of the image and renders it using a cast of a child’s hand as his paint brush. This decision implicates Hindley’s child victims in the creation of this monumental scale image, “for her image to be constructed out of a child’s palm print is to enlist her victims in its creation.” Julius (2003: p.165). Perhaps these facts alone explain the public outcry at the presence of this work in the canon of modern art.
However, the entire topic of Myra Hindley, from grim event, to photograph to Harvey’s work is incendiary – one may question the works’ apparent ambivalence: “Myra does not provoke questions about the injustice of Hindley’s crimes or the justice of her punishment. Nor does it cause us to ponder that sanctification of childhood, one that leads to the demonising of it’s violators” Julius (2003: p.167). ‘Myra’ exposes the societal transgression of paedophillia and infantacide and by virtue of Hindley’s sex re-fuels the debate around gender role deviance, Hindley “re-invented as the manifestation of a scapegoat, a social and cultural warning to all women … Harvey’s portrait was perceived to have not only re-ignited public outrage but raised the phenomenon to a higher power”, Campbell (2011). Harvey (cited in Cashell, 2009: p77) stated that he was “very aware that the pull of the image was a sexual thing”, this statement raises issues of Freudian sublimation, the redirection of instinctual urges […] towards non-instinctual behaviour (Pooke & Newall, 2007: p.120), in both Harvey and perhaps society at large through its fetishisation of the original photograph, which in turn challenges societal norms and hence morality. Perhaps the nature in which Harvey’s image was forced into the public conscience cause the insuppressible moral rupture, consider of the context of the painting’s public showing – presented to the world with the apparent endorsement of the art establishment, commodified by the Royal Academy of Arts to promote their yBa exhibition which created revenues of almost £2m (Cashell, 2009, p54). ‘Sensation’ branded in Myra Hindley’s image exposed the financial motives of the art world, rendering the special privilege of artistic self expression as little more than a shill for the markets, a phenomena observed by Trotsky 57 years previously, “Bourgeois society showed its strength throughout long periods of history in the fact that, combining repression, and encouragement, boycott and flattery, it was able to control and assimilate every ‘rebel’ movement in art and raise it to the level of official ‘recognition.’” Trotsky (cited in Kurzweil: p.13).
That this, or indeed any work of art can be considered, analysed from a critical and ethical perspectives, contextualised and ultimately enshrined in the canon of art is telling of a central tenet of our democracy – that everyone has the right to freedom of expression. It is this right which is tested again and again when art work such as Myra engage and enrage moral sensibilities and it is with this notion of defending freedom of expression that one should consider Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’.
By the late 1980’s a war had begun in the USA, this was a political war unlike any other – a battle was to be fought over the cultural future of American society, and as the world’s most powerful nation the reverberations continue to be heard around the world over 20 years later. In 1992 Pat Buchanan made a speech to the Republican National Convention, “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America…” Buchanan (1992, http://buchanan.org/blog/1992-republican-national-convention-speech-148, accessed 16 November 2013 ). After decades of fundamental change in American politics and society there existed a deep divide, battle lines were drawn along issues of abortion, homosexuality, AIDS, religion, public morality, radical feminism, environmental extremism and public funding of the Arts.
Piss Christ, Andres Serrano,1987
Hobbs (1994) describes Serrano as developing and coming to maturity during Reagan’s deregulation of the markets and as an artist representing issues around politicisation of the body, issues that became the keystones of Buchanan’s war. He goes on to describe Serrano’s use of bodily fluids as seductively alluring and using the visual language of advertising. It was with this aesthetic that Serrano created his Piss Christ, a 60 x 40 inch photograph of the familiar image of Christ on the cross. The cross fills the frame and lays at a slightly oblique angle to the viewer – the closest edge in clear focus the farthest fading to blurred ambiguity. Across the surface of the image are tiny bubbles, the picture is monochromatic with a rich orange hue. Serrano used his own urine, which he had collected over a period of time in order to add a rich, lustrous tone to the image, the work is painterly, peaceful and contemplative. The work was well received, Serrano and nine contemporaries were selected to receive $15,000 fellowships with the South-eastern Centre for Contemporary Art, the work went on to be shown in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh without criticism.
When the work was eventually brought to the attention of Christian right lobbyists it became an emblem of the debasement of what many held to be fundamental Americanisms. Perhaps most obviously the image was seen as blasphemous, the connotations of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for all-mankind literally pissed on. Not only had an artist chosen to desecrate the holy – it appeared to many to be state sponsored “That the National Endowment for the arts (NEA) had funded its exhibition meant that the government itself were endorsing its blasphemy” (Julius, 2003: p24). Piss Christ became a pawn in the culture war, denounced by the (Republican) president, senators, Christians and Catholics alike creating a visceral anger and sense of hysteria or panic: “Serrano’s work, in its outrageous provocativeness, eludes their ready understanding, and their anger thus betrays a mood that is more defensive, less certain” (Julius, 2003: p25)
Piss Christ was emblematic of a split running through the fabric of American society, artistic self-expression was in direct conflict with the twin powers of religious and right-wing political doctrine; art had become the front line in the battle of political and moralistic ideologies. To counter objections to the photograph Julius (2003: p15-51) describes several defences for transgressive work. Arguments around Freedom of Expression provisions and the US First Amendment linked artistic expression to fundamental freedoms enjoyed by the whole population, if the government choose to support one type of art over another it effectively abolished the First Amendment. Further defenses sought to lead the work into the canon of Modern Art; as the earlier description of the image shows, it is possible to read Piss Christ on an entirely formal level – perceived meaning, connotations brought about by the title etc. are not the work and should not be of concern, a theory posited in Sontag (1964: p.10) “Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories”. By drawing comparisons with other artworks, Piss Christ can be shown to exist within a framework, validated by previous works – it can be shown to belong within the canon of legitimate art. Further more one may argue that it is art’s job to compel the viewer to understand new truths about themselves or the world; one way to do this is by a process of defamiliarisation and questioning received wisdom. These formal, canonical and estrangement defences seek to protect transgressive artwork and hence the right to self expression.
King & Levin (2006: p37-47) suggests that this artistic freedom is tolerated because self-expression and self-realisation have been co-opted by capitalism as diversionary pursuits to prevent the middle classes from seeking political alternatives to its hegemony. In this vision the cult of individualism is seen as a foot soldier in the battle between capitalism and marxist/socialist ideals. The complicit role of self expression in the machine of capitalism is echoed in Stallabrass (2006: p125) “the most celebrated contemporary art is that which serves to further the interests of the neoliberal economy, in breaking down barriers to trade, local solidarities, and cultural attachments in a continual process of hybridization.”
By definition self expression is limited only by the bounds of the imagination, it is a right protected both culturally and legally in many countries, yet artists continue to taunt this freedom with work that is provocative or offensive to elements of the moral majority. That this contradiction is allowed to continue is telling of the societal importance of freedom of expression. Moral frameworks are not static doctrines, but evolving systems which are the product of all of their inputs. In order that accepted truths about morality be tested and either re-qualified or updated robust challenges must be made to the status quo. By considering art within the context of re-evaluating the nature of humanity and re-questioning received wisdom a society is allowed to develop and grow. Furthermore self expression and individualism can be seen as essential capitalist control mechanisms, diverting the working middle classes from seeking political change and allowing its capitalism’s hegemony to remain unchallenged.
From time to time there is a price to pay for allowing this freedom; that price is the short-term unreconcilable offence caused to whichever moral group’s sensibilities have been offended. Over time such work is assimilated into the general consciousness until it either helps to reshape moral frameworks, or its potency dissipates. Occasionally work becomes politically powerful and the situation is further confused, for example ‘Piss Christ’ creates an apparent paradox as it challenges conservative politics and ideals, whilst at the same time, perhaps inadvertently serving fulfilling the role of a diversionary tactic for capitalism.
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