During the nineties, the United States got immersed in a war that pretended to make a social change in the way the youth would grow up and society would change. It was called the culture war, and it was divided in two main sectors. The traditionalist and conservative opinion, wanted to ban and censor all expressions that offended their beliefs. While the progressive and liberal perspective, claimed that taboo issues like abortion, drug consumption, sexuality, immigration, separation of the church from the state, among other subjects, should be addressed openly and, more importantly, that some of these issues should be tackled in the education curriculum to educate people from an early age. Although it would seem that this war is still going nowadays, this movement became an inspiration for other countries who also began to follow the same. Now, among the episodes, or better-said, battles fought during this war, there was one that took the attention of many.
It happened in 1989, when Senators Alfonse D’Amato and Jesse Helms began a crusade against photographer artist Andres Serrano, whose work they considered blasphemous and not artistic at all. The work of dispute was his famous Immersion (Piss Christ) (1987) a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine. The photograph won the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art's prize, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Naturally, being funded with the government’s money, the senators thought it was their responsibility to ban all those artists who attacked the morals they praised. Many other senators joined to this crusade and signed a petition asking for the immediate withdrawal of the piece from both the exhibition where it was being displayed and the grant he had received. Even when the exhibition had already closed its doors, people would continue to protest against Serrano’s work. Of course, this didn’t change his vision and themes at all. Probably, they’ve just become even more controversial.
In an interview we had with the artist, he explains that his main intention as a visual artist is not to create controversy, but to explore the themes that interest him and that make sense to him. More than being an intention, he claims that what makes it controversial is the interpretation (or also the literal meaning) people see in his works: “The mystery and strength of my work lies somewhere between what you see and what you imagine.” Following that idea, one of his most striking, and controversial, series was his 2001 The Interpretation of the Dreams, where he portrays cultural and social archetypes with a twist, or better said, showing a division and clash in terms of race, gender, and classes.
Borrowing Freud’s theory on the subconscious, Serrano created this series in which each image apparently doesn’t connect with the other but in the concept and idea. As for him, he has always thought that the creative process works in the same way as dreams, in the sense that the ideas and imagination just run free without following any direction. In that way, the ideas came free for each of the photos. Although these might be the essence of the photo series, what’s also true is that there’s a theme that seems to connect them as well.
The contrasting iconography and content of the photos creates interesting statements about the realities that contemporary society deals with nowadays in terms of race, religion, and politics. You can see a piece entitled “The Other Christ,” where a black Christ with a white Virgin portray otherness and a clear distance that still pervades nowadays. Why is it so shocking when the image of a character with such a cultural importance changes in that way? In the same discourse about religion, he also presents a very powerful and intense photo called “White Man’s Burden” depicting a black man dressed in the classic Ku Klux Klan attire. Most of his work might make us uncomfortable, but it also pushes us to question why we are reacting this way.
Finally, probably the image that has captivated most people and that gives the name to this article was the one entitled “White Nigger.” It’s a portrait of a half naked man looking at his side. The interesting part of it is that most of his skin is dark while the other is white. What’s the idea behind it? Does the combination and contrast, not only in terms of the color of the skin but the cultural difference, makes it so polemic? He’s explained that, while doing his series in the morgue, he was appalled by the bodies of black women decomposing and the way their skin started losing their pigmentation. As the medical examiner in charge of the morgue told Serrano after taking a very thin layer of skin from the body, this was actually the “thickness of racism.”
Andres Serrano has become popular for not keeping anything to himself when it comes to his artistic vision and works. As he told us he doesn’t “want to be politically correct if it means holding back.” However, as we mentioned, for him this is not a matter of creating works that will cause a huge controversy, but depicting what he sees and lives. Moreover, he also shows what comes from that part of his mind he does not control, playing with concepts and ideas that at first wouldn’t seem to connect with each other, but that end up creating a subversive meaning in the piece.
If you want to know more about this photography artist, visit his official website: Andres Serrano
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