May 222011

Today we have a special edition of THAT’S METAL! It seemed like an appropriate day for this, since yesterday has passed, the world has not ended, and so fas as I know, there haven’t been any documented instances of anyone taken up into the clouds by The Rapture. But this edition of THAT’S METAL! isn’t going to be what you probably think it will be.

Having some vicious fun at the expense of one goofball evangelical minister or his delusional goofball followers would be too easy, and it wouldn’t cause anyone to do any actual thinking. And while it’s true that provoking serious thought isn’t part of the official NCS mission statement, on rare occasions we do make a stab at it. Today will be one of those days.

So, if you read the title of this post and were expecting cynical mockery of self-styled prophets of Judgment Day, or Christianity, or even religion generally, you won’t find that here (at least not today). There is a connection between the fallacious May 21 Rapture prediction and the point(s) of this post, but it may not be obvious.

And as for the point(s) of this post, well, I don’t intend to make that explicit either, mainly because I don’t really get off on preaching, or listening to preaching, for that matter. Besides, this post has as much to do with what makes good and bad art (including metal music) as it does with anything else. So, draw your own conclusions — and if you start to get bored, you can just skip to the bottom of the post and listen to some actual metal.

Our starting point for this bit of mental exercise is that photograph at the top of the post. It was made in 1987 by a New York artist named Andres Serrano. It depicts a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s own urine — hence, the name “Piss Christ“. It was one of a series of photographs that Serrano made involving classical statuettes submerged in various fluids—milk, blood, and urine.

Not surprisingly, it generated immense controversy when it was first exhibited in 1989 — and it hit the headlines again last month when protesters vandalized the photograph at an exhibition in France. More about that in a minute — but you might start thinking now about this question: What message do you think Andres Serrano was trying to convey?


First, a bit of background about the “Piss Christ” photo from The Font of All Human Knowledge:

The piece was a winner of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s “Awards in the Visual Arts” competition, which is sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, a United States Government agency that offers support and funding for artistic projects. . . .

The piece caused a scandal when it was exhibited in 1989, with detractors, including United States Senators Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms, outraged that Serrano received $15,000 for the work, part of it from the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts. Serrano received death threats and hate mail, and lost grants due to the controversy. Others alleged that the government funding of Piss Christ violated separation of church and state. . . .

During a retrospective of Serrano’s work at the National Gallery of Victoria [Australia] in 1997, the then Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell, sought an injunction from the Supreme Court of Victoria to restrain the National Gallery of Victoria from publicly displaying Piss Christ, which was not granted. Some days later, one patron attempted to remove the work from the gallery wall, and two teenagers later attacked it with a hammer. The director of the NGV cancelled the show, allegedly out of concern for a Rembrandt exhibition that was also on display at the time.


To bring us up to date, here are excerpts from an April 18, 2011, news story in the online edition of The Guardian newspaper (UK):

When New York artist Andres Serrano plunged a plastic crucifix into a glass of his own urine and photographed it in 1987 under the title Piss Christ, he said he was making a statement on the misuse of religion.

Controversy has followed the work ever since, but reached an unprecedented peak on Palm Sunday when it was attacked with hammers and destroyed after an “anti-blasphemy” campaign by French Catholic fundamentalists in the southern city of Avignon.

The photograph had been shown in France several times without incident. For four months, it has hung in the exhibition I Believe in Miracles, to mark 10 years of art-dealer Yvon Lambert‘s personal collection in his 18th-century mansion gallery in Avignon. The show is due to end next month, but two weeks ago a concerted protest campaign began.

Civitas, a lobby group that says it aims to re-Christianize France, launched an online petition and mobilised other fundamentalist groups. The staunchly conservative archbishop of Vaucluse, Jean-Pierre Cattenoz, called Piss Christ “odious” and said he wanted this “trash” taken off the gallery walls. Last week the gallery complained of “extremist harassment” by fundamentalist Christian groups who wanted the work banned in France.

On Saturday, around 1,000 Christian protesters marched through Avignon to the gallery. The protest group included a regional councillor for the extreme-right Front National, which recently scored well in the Vaucluse area in local elections. The gallery immediately stepped up security, putting plexiglass in front of the photograph and assigning two gallery guards to stand in front of it.

But on Palm Sunday morning, four people in sunglasses aged between 18 and 25 entered the exhibition just after it opened at 11am. One took a hammer out of his sock and threatened the guards with it. A guard grabbed another man around the waist but within seconds the group managed to take a hammer to the plexiglass screen and slash the photograph with another sharp object, thought to be a screwdriver or ice-pick. They also smashed another work, which showed the hands of a meditating nun.


Sister Wendy Beckett is a Catholic nun, a “consecrated virgin”, and an art critic. She was born in South Africa, raised in Scotland, and became a nun in 1946 at the age of 16. She was sent to England and studied at St Anne’s College at Oxford, where she was awarded a first class (with distinction) degree in English literature. Late in her life, she became a student of art and narrated a series of acclaimed art history and art appreciation documentaries for the BBC.

In 1997, she gave a televised interview to American newsman Bill Moyers that was aired on PBS. In this excerpt, Moyers asks her about the “Piss Christ” photograph. Listen to what she had to say about it — and about art that’s “comforting”, art that “makes demands”, the point in time when art should be judged — and nudity. She’s a tiny, owlish, lisping, buck-toothed creature shrouded in a nun’s habit, but appearances can be deceiving.

By the way, here’s the painting that Sister Wendy and Moyers were discussing in part of that video clip:


Excerpts from some metal lyrics:

Where are we now?
When we are blind
Abandoned faith
You left behind

Were you betrayed?
Or did you lie?
Our common fate
Our common demise

And so we rise
Just to fall down
In reality
You’re never found

Face down, arms out
Nailed to the cross of doubt
Blood runs like rain
Drowning for this world in vain


And now some actual metal. Of course, it’s Fear Factory playing “Pisschrist” from the Demanufacture album. This clip is high-quality film of a live performance in April 1999. Maybe this is the only thing about the post that’s metal, but I don’t think so. Maybe there’s nothing to be learned from any of this, but I hope not.


Thanks to NCS writer Andy Synn for sending me the link to that story from The Guardian, which caused me to start exploring and led to the rest of this post.

P.S. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that 41 percent of Americans believe Jesus will “definitely” or “probably” return for the faithful before 2050.


  1. I don’t have time at the moment to see what the nun has to say about a painting of a woman from behind, but I’m assuming that if you’ve made mention of her on a post devoted mostly to the Piss Christ, it can’t be anything really worth my time anyway.

    Maybe later, after I get shit done. I brought my own computer in to work to get updates installed – and I might even have time to catch up on some more tunes.

    • Good news on the computer! And as I hinted in the post, I think you’ll be surprised by what Sister Wendy has to say. Give it a chance.

      • Well, I wasn’t quite expecting that.

        From the sounds of it, the interviewer was looking for a much different response than he got. If only more people in and around the church could actually look forward, think for themselves and not be hung up about certain ideas.

        • Yeah, Moyer is pretty left-wing in his own views, but I think he was trying to provoke her with a few bits of Catholic dogma and see what happened. Wonder if he was surprised by the reactions he got.

          • He looked surprised.

            Which, personally, I found annoying. As much as I have no love for the clergy, trying to put everyone in a box is just stupid. There will always be people who break expectations and the best reaction (in my opinion) is a smile and a nod of acceptance.

            Acting surprised just makes you look kinda…simplistic.

            • That was kinda one of the points I was reaching for in this post — that stereotyping people and their beliefs in simplistic (and often prejudicial) ways is something we ought to get away from if we can — whether it’s artists who submerge crucifixes in urine or nuns in their habits. Of course, there really ARE people in the world who are exactly what they seem and ideas that really ARE stupid. 🙂

              • True.

                And as much as I respect her views on art, I have nothing nice to say about her belief system.

                But that doesn’t mean she isn’t smart! I just think her premises are flawed.

  2. I liked most of what she said, actually. I take issue with her theologically (obviously), but in general, I think I can agree with her aesthetics.

    The one aesthetic thing I disagreed with her on, was that the greatness of art can only best be judged on a timeline. She does have some interesting guidelines for judging it in the present, but I find the idea that only after we have accumulated a large number of testimonies can we say that it’s great or not. (I’m paraphrasing here, so I apologize if I’m misrepresenting her views.) I firmly believe that there ARE objective criteria with with to judge a work. But I don’t think we have a 100% clear idea of what those criteria, since they are in flux depending on the medium and the culture which birthed the work. It would be absurd to judge War and Peace by the same criteria as Hamlet or Beethoven’s Fifth or Suffocation.

    That said, I do think there is a certain (albeit fuzzy) set of criteria we should (or at least can) apply. I look at it as the intersection of method and message. How well has the artist employed their method to convey their message. This allows us to take any work of any medium from any culture and, based on the assumptions of the medium and the culture, analyze how well did the artist convey their intended meaning through the use of their medium.

    I don’t buy the idea that we can determine greatness by the popularity or longlastingness of a work. Generally, they are good indicators, but often great things simply get forgotten.

    • The way I understood it, not all art takes time to appreciate, but some of it does. Maybe it could’ve been worded better, but I think she meant that certain works of art didn’t gain an audience or acceptance until long after they had been made or after the artist had died.

      • Ah.

        I guess someone (me) needs to watch the video again. Oops!

      • Well, I need to listen again, too, because that’s not how I interpreted what she was saying. I interpreted her message just as Phro did.

      • I could be wrong, but that’s the way I took what she said.

        Granted, I feel that’s the case anyway, so that may be part of it. I haven’t studied art, I think one can learn too much, study too much, dissect too much – and it loses its meaning. She, however, has studied art and I’m just guessing here, but I think she knows a helluva lot more than I do.

        On top of that, she doesn’t seem to have inherited a prudish mindset from the Bible; she may have given up sex and sexuality herself for her path in life, but doesn’t seem to be one to call for husbands and wives sleeping in separate beds and having no carnal contact, save for when they hear the call from God to procreate.

        • How she came to have such a tolerant, undogmatic, liberated view of things is a mystery to me — given that (according to what I’ve read) she spent a large part of her life in a cloistered nunnery under a vow of silence and still spends most of her time in total seclusion. Apparently, she taught herself about art, and until she finally received a dispensation to leave the nunnery fairly late in life to visit museums and galleries, all she had ever seen of art was in postcards and books.

    • I think you did accurately characterize what she was saying — that to judge the greatness of art requires the passage of time, so we can see whether its effect has lasting value. Of course, I quickly thought about metal as a form of art. I do think her point has some validity. Some music just capitalizes on the latest fad and may be massively popular in the present but will be forgotten quickly. Other music may last, may sound as fresh and powerful in future years as it does now. Still other music may be totally unappreciated when it first comes out, with its genius recognized only after the passage of years — maybe because it’s really ahead of its time.

      But you do make another point that sounds right to me — sometimes great things get forgotten, or maybe never get recognized as great despite deserving recognition.

      Your main point I need to stew about some more, ie, that there are objective criteria which can be applied in judging the quality of art (the intersection of method and message), and so the passage of time is unnecessary — we can apply those criteria at any time and reach the correct conclusion, regardless of subjective personal taste.

      • I do see the necessity of time. But I think that time can also be misleading.
        I feel like time or mass appeal or what not are not directly related to the QUALITY of a work.
        Even positive critical reaction seem a bit pointless. For me, to judge a work, the only thing you need, besides the context of culture and medium, is the work itself.
        This is where the idea of subjectivity comes into play, and I totally understand the (somewhat postmodern) idea that art is entirely subjective. I vehemently disagree, otherwise everything is art and the word becomes as meaningful as the word “nice”. (Nothing is as annoying as someone saying flatly “Nice.” Put some thought and emotion into your fucking words!)

        That said, staying power can testify to the quality of a work. But no more!

        I think that’s what I objected to the most. The idea that we can judge a work or a piece of art on anything beyond the thing itself.

        I’m sure that’s not exactly what she was saying. I mean, she’s clearly a smart lady with a TON of knowledge, but that one thing really bugged me as I understood it.

        I should probably watch the video again…

        Also, in regards to metal, I think the method aspect is something that a lot of people forget about when they try to analyze or think about metal. If you come from the perspective that “it’s all just noise to me”, I firmly believe you are unqualified to even have a fucking opinion. You clearly do not understand the method or even the context of the work.

        The same goes for how the Victorians looked down on haiku or Chinese poetry or how so many people view rap.

        It’s okay if you don’t like it, but you can’t legitimately judge something if you don’t understand how it works. Even if you have to have a phd is musicology, unless you have taken the time to learn and understand the intent of a genre, as well as the context of the ideology, you’re just pissing in the wind.

        • I think I’m probably one of those people who buys into the notion that art appreciation is subjective and very dependent on personal taste — though I also confess I haven’t given it a lot of thought. What you’re saying reminds me of what a good friend was trying to explain about the Westminster Dog Show when I said I couldn’t understand how you could pick a winner when the dogs are so different from each other. She said that each breed is judged according to the standards of the breed, and that the Best in Show is awarded to the dog that best epitomizes its particular breed. I don’t know if that analogy works, but it’s what came to my doglike mind.

          • The dog show analogy works for me. I think that’s about how I see it. Things must be judged based on what they are, not what we want them to be.

  3. 1989? Jesus. No pun intended. I remember when they made such a big deal about this — the whole NEA thing and whatever. Wow, do I feel old sometimes.

    • Tell me about it dude. I’d totally forgotten about this thing — until reading that it had been destroyed last month, 22 fucking years later.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.