The Piss Christ Test

Recently, I wrote an impassioned response to some comments made by artist and critical writer George Hunka concerning expectations of theater (and performing arts in general) criticism. It’s worth reading, I hope, but in some of the feedback I got (as well as some of the discussion on the same topic at Parabasis) has made me want to elaborate about one of the important things I try to take to shows with me when I’m reviewing. It concerns the issue of intent vs. interpretation, and I call it “The Piss Christ Test.”

A couple years ago, I went to review a dance performance that was drawing a lot of attention. The choreographer was a very talented dancer who had formed his own company and was presenting his first evening-length work, and it had a lot of energy behind it. I went, saw the piece, and generally enjoyed it though I didn’t find it particularly deep. It was technically accomplished, but wore its heart on its sleeve and the concept existed mostly to facilitate talented dancers dancing well. My review was generally positive, as were almost all of them, and I sort of put it behind me pretty quick to move on to other things. As it happened, the next weekend I interviewed another choreographer, this one female, and afterward we sat around chatting a bit, at which point she took me to task for my review.

Her main complaint was that in all the positive press, no one had mentioned several things she found deeply troubling about the show, and I was forced to admit that really, she had a good point. The intent was clear, so I took it at face value, even dismissed it, and didn’t even really think about it, and wrote about how talented and accomplished the dancing was. I had missed some pretty blunt things by accepting what the artist clearly wanted me to see, and that was wrong, because there was something else there, too. I mentioned that in cases like this, I usually referred to Piss Christ, and she, it turned out, used it as her default example, too. Thus the test was born.

Piss Christ, for those who don’t recall, was a work by photographer Andres Serrano that caused a fair bit of controversy back in the early Nineties at the height of the “culture wars,” along with Mapplethorpe and the NEA Four and all that. The image is pretty much what the name describes, and many Christians were outraged that it was funded partially by NEA dollars. Arts defenders shot back in a variety of ways, arguing that it was re-introducing the visceral into religion, similar to Chris Offili’s Madonna a couple years later, referencing an older, less stifled version of religion. A quick Internet search turned up the following article, which I’ll use as representative, published in 2000 in the journal Law, Text, Culture. It opens with the following paragraph:

Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ has been at the centre of one controversy or another for a decade. Much of the debate has focused on questions of tolerance and pluralism. The claim that Piss Christ is offensive to Christians seems to suggest, incorrectly I believe, that Piss Christ has neither place nor precedent within the Christian tradition. To the extent that Piss Christ questions the boundaries between the sacred and the profane, it enacts what it represents. It threatens the identity of conservative Christians who respond by seeking to exclude it from the public realm. I consider that what is at stake is not merely the question of tolerance within a pluralist society but also of tolerance within a pluralist Church. To whom do religious symbols belong and who has the authority to prescribe the manner in which they are used? It will be my argument in this article that Piss Christ, regardless of authorial intention, is a profoundly religious work, to the extent that it raises profound theological questions that speaks to the very heart of Christianity. Consequently, after ten years, Piss Christ is still worthy of consideration.

Now, here’s the funny thing about it: everything in this is, at least arguably, true from a critical and artistic perspective. In fact I do generally agree with the assessment and the issues raised. The problem is, as an argument, it’s also completely full of it. This is, after all, a photo of Christ submerged in piss. The author is arguing that a clearly and predictably provocative image should not actually be seen as provocative. He argues that a piece that offended a number of people doesn’t qualify as offensive. And by seeing religious imagery solely in cultural product terms, he ridiculously argues that theologians have no place in establishing theology. This is cultural criticism at its risible worst, deployed to defend a work by essentially claiming that people who were offended by it were just wrong. It’s a mind-boggling defense of intent against what people actually saw and thought.

And that’s the Piss Christ test: No matter how clear the artist’s intent is to you, part of the analysis of the work is subjecting it to common sense, and wondering what someone who doesn’t spend all their time considering art would see. If the intent doesn’t carry to that person, it fails the test.

(Whether Piss Christ itself actually fails the test is a different question; the choreographer and I were both referring to other people’s ridiculous defenses of the work, not Serrano’s own, which I’ve never actually bothered to look into. But Serrano is quite clearly a provocateur, as his subsequent career proved, so I doubt he’d seriously argue it was not intended to be provocative.)

To return to the show we were talking about, the issue had to do with representations and uses of women. The general theme was about the destructiveness of wanton consumption, and a female dancer was employed in a sort of Mother Earth role, who suffers because of said wantonness. What we both saw, but I failed to really register, was this character being physically abused, thrown down and humped onstage by males, and ultimately smeared with blood and tossed into a garbage can. (The bit about the blood turned out to be a technical error: it was meant to look like the dirt it turned out to be, but the dirt’s tone mixed with the lighting looked like blood smears.)

Anyway, shortly thereafter the only female critic who reviewed the show, as well as a prominent male choreographer, both wrote publicly about how troubling it was use to see a woman in symbolic role get abused, raped, and tossed away bloody onstage, and I had to embarrassingly admit in a subsequent post that I really hadn’t paid attention and that on reflection, the imagery actually was very problematic. It was bad criticism on my part. I didn’t bother to examine the show thoroughly enough, and indeed, it failed the Piss Christ test. As the female choreographer pointed out to me, “I don’t care what a director or choreographer says the image means, if you have a man slapping a woman onstage, people are going to see a man slapping a woman regardless of whether they get your point.”

The reason I bring this up in relation to my piece on Hunka’s comments on criticism is that a lot of my objection had to do with what I took to be a rejection of people who don’t see what the artist wants them to see. I really don’t care when artists say that about critics, but if a critic isn’t “knowledgeable” enough to comment on the art, where does that leave a non-theater person? At the very least, whether intentionally or not, it sounds arrogant and condescending. The fault for a lack of communication, of mutual understanding, is located wholly in terms of the person who doesn’t get it, not the artist who is putatively trying to say something.

At some point we have to admit that this is putting the artist’s intent above the actual execution of the piece. The Piss Christ Test is meant to keep the actual communicative aspect of art firmly in view when I’m thinking about whether it’s successful or not. But all too often, when I hear complaints about my reviews from artists, it really is on the grounds that I saw something they didn’t intend, and that this is my fault.

None of this is to suggest that all audiences are equal or that all critics ask the right questions or come to right and just conclusions. Nor is it to suggest that artists should refuse to take aesthetic risks for fear someone “won’t get it.” Someone always won’t get it. But applied too broadly and defensively against even engaged viewers, it amounts to an excuse for a failure on the artist’s part. Artists who aren’t concerned about what their audiences take away from a piece have no business complaining about what reviews they get. Artists who do care about communication, then, can’t simply dismiss responses they don’t want to hear, however qualified or knowledgeable the viewer to offer an opinion. The artist doesn’t have to change based on those responses, but they can’t simply be deemed invalid. And this is what underlies my own rejection of the critic as a singular engaged authority: there are no perfect critics, just as there are no perfect audiences, because in the end, the critic is just a member of that audience, too.

Work presented to a diverse public has to accept diverse responses. The process of artistic progress is often a matter of the artist sensibly sorting the productive wheat from the chaff. I try not to produce too much chaff, and one of the ways I do so is by using the Piss Christ Test. I would hope that artists use it, too.

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