More Controversy In Art: The National Endowment For The Arts & Tax-Payer Money
In the mid-1980s, Andreas Serrano, a Cuban American artist, received a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment For The Arts in Washington D.C. (i.e. tax payer money) to create a series of controversial photographs. Among many of the photographs Serrano created, his picture entitled “Piss Christ” (shown above) immediately created a fire of controversy among conservative politicians. The photograph depicts a crucifix of Christ on the cross submerged in a tank of Serrano’s own urine.
Serrano is well known for creating photographs that employ the use of his own urine, semen and blood. See the photograph above of his now infamous “Piss Christ” photograph. See also the album covers of the Heavy Metal/Rock band Metallica’s “Load” album and their “Reload” album for other examples of Serrano’s work.
For this sixth writing assignment, you need to first read the two letters below. One is a letter written by Andreas Serrano to the National Endowment For The Arts in 1989 after the controversy of “Piss Christ” had begun, and also after the fact that he had already been given a $15,000 grant by the National Endowment For The Arts to create “Piss Christ” and many other photographs.
Also, please be sure to read Senator Jesse Helms’ (Republican, North Carolina. Deceased) letter below that he wrote to then President George H. W. Bush in 1989 in opposition to the National Endowment For The Arts’ funding of “Piss Christ” and other Serrano photographs.
After you have read both letters below, I would like you to take a stance on this topic. In a page and a half or longer of writing (You may provide a space between paragraphs, but please DO NOT space between sentences) , please consider the following questions in your response: 1). Is it appropriate for tax-payers to fund art which is obviously religious in nature? Why or why not? Give examples and reasons. 2). Should the National Endowment For The Arts come up with stricter standards in terms of what they can and cannot fund (keeping in mind that the NEA panel consists of people well educated in the arts)? Why or why not? Give reasons and examples. Do you feel it is okay for tax-payers to fund “offensive works of art?” Why or why not? Are you convinced of Serrano’s arguments in defense of his photograph in the letter he wrote to the National Endowment For The Arts in 1989? Why or why not? Give reasons and example. Are you convinced of Senator Helms’ arguments against Serrano in the letter he wrote to President George H.W. Bush in 1989? Why or why not? Give reasons and examples.
Here are the two letters:
Andreas Serrano-Letter to the National Endowment For The Arts (1989)
I am concerned over recent events regarding the misrepresentation of my work in Congress and consequent treatment in the media. The cavalier and blasphemous intentions ascribed to me on the Congressional floor bear little semblance to reality. I am disturbed that the rush to judgment by certain members of Congress has been particularly swift and vindictive.
I am appalled by the claim of “anti-Christian bigotry” that has been attributed to my picture, “Piss Christ.” The photograph and the title itself are ambiguously provocative but certainly not blasphemous. Over the years, I have addressed religion in my art. My Catholic upbringing informs this work which helps me to redefine and personalize my relationship with God. My use of bodily fluids, such as blood and urine in this context is parallel to Catholicism’s obsession with the body and blood of Christ. It is precisely in the exploration and juxtaposition of these symbols from which Christianity draws its strength. The photograph in question, like all my work, has multiple meanings and can be interpreted in various ways. So let us suppose that the picture is meant as a criticism of the billion dollar Christ-for-profit industry and the commercialization of spiritual values that permeates our society. That it is a condemnation of those who abuse the teachings of Christ for their own ignoble ends. Is the subject of religion so inviolate that it is not open to discussion? I think not.
In the Majority Opinion in the flag burning case, Justice William J. Brenan concluded, “We never before have held that the Government may insure that a symbol be used to express one view of that symbol or its referents….To conclude that the Government may permit designated symbols to be used to communicate only a limited set of messages would be to enter into territory having no discernible or defensible boundaries.”
Artists often depend on the manipulation of symbols to present ideas and associations not always apparent in such symbols. If all such ideas and associations were evident, there would be little need for artists to give expression to them. In short, there would be no need to make art.
Do we condemn the use of a swastika in a work of art that does not unequivocally denounce Nazism as anti-Semitic? Not when the artist is Jewish. Do we denounce as racist a painting or photograph that is demeaning to African-Americans? Not if the artist is Black. When art is decontextualized however, it can pose a problem and create misunderstanding. Debate and dissention are at the heart of our democracy. In a free society of ideas, even difficult ones are not dangerous. The only danger lies in the repressing of them.(end of letter)
Andreas Serrano – July 8th, 1989 New York City
Jesse Helms. Senator Helms Objects to Taxpayers’ Funding for Sacrilegious Art (1989)
Letter to President George H.W. Bush
Mr. President, . . . . I do not know Mr. Andreas Serrano, and I hope I never meet him because he is not an artist, he is a jerk. Let us examine exactly what this bird did to get the American taxpayer to subsidize his $15,000 award through the so-called National Endowment For The Arts. Let me first say that if the Endowment has no better judgment than this, it ought to be abolished and all funds returned to the taxpayer.
What this Serrano fellow did to create this blasphemy was to fill a bottle with his own urine and then he stuck a crucifix – the Lord Jesus Christ on a cross, down in the urine, set the bottle on a table, and took a picture of it.
For that, the National Endowment For The Arts contributed to a $15,000 award to honor him as an artist. I say again, Mr. President, he is not an artist. He is a jerk. He is taunting a large segment of the American people, just as others are, about their Christian faith. I resent it, and I do not hesitate to say so. I am not going to call the name that he applied to this work of art. In naming it he sought to create indignation, and let there be no question that he succeeded in that regard. It is alright for him to be a jerk, but let him be a jerk on his own time and with his own resources. Do not dishonor the Lord. Again, I resent it and I think the vast majority of our American people resent the National Endowment For The Arts spending the taxpayers’ money to honor this individual.
The Federal program which honored Mr. Serrano, called the Awards in Visual Arts, is supported by the National Endowment and administered by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts. They call it SECCA, and I am sorry to say it is in my home state.
After Mr. Serrano’s selection, this deplorable photograph and some of his other works were exhibited in several cities around the country with the approval and the support of the National Endowment. Horesfeathers! If we have sunk so low in this country as to tolerate and condone this sort of thing, then we have become a part of it.
The question is obvious. On what conceivable basis does anybody who would engage in such blasphemy and insensitivity toward the religious community deserve to be honored? The answer to that is that he does not. He deserves to be rebuked and ignored because he is not an artist. Anybody who would do such a despicable thing and get a tax-subsidized award of $15,000 for it – well, it tells you something about the state of this Government and the way it spends our hard earned tax dollars.
So no wonder all of the people calling my office are indignant. The Constitution may prevent the Government from prohibiting Mr. Serrano’s laughably, I will describe it – “artistic expression.” But the Constitution certainly does not require the American tax payers or the Federal Government to fund, promote, honor, approve, or condone it.
Mr. President, the National Endowment’s procedures for selecting artists and works of art deserving of taxpayer support are badly, badly flawed if this is an example of the kind of programs they fund with taxpayer’s money.
I have send word to the Endowment that I want them to preview their funding criteria to ensure abuses such as this never happen again. The preliminary report we got from one person with whom we talked to was sort of “Down boy, we know what we are doing.” Well, they do not know what they are doing. By promoting, approving and funding Mr. Serrano’s sacrilege, the National Endowment has insulted the very precepts on which this country was founded. I say again, that as an American and as a tax payer, I resent it. (end of letter)
Senator Jesse Helms (1989)
Recommendations for assignment #6 (and a warning).
Hello everyone. I would like to give you all some recommendations for writing assignment #6. Every semester, I get a handful of students who submit a response to writing assignment #6 riddled with cliched, thoughtless arguments/comments about the topic of tax payers funding Andreas Serrano’s “Piss Christ” photo. You certainly do not have to agree with the photo, nor do you have to agree with funding it – but I would ask that if do disagree with its funding – do so with thoughtful, intelligent arguments that give specific reasons, and not comments based on your emotions and personal bias
Every semester I read papers with many of the same cliched comments such as: “I’m a Christian and the majority of Americans are Christian, so therefore the photo “Piss Christ” should not be funded by tax payers because it offends the majority of tax payers.” This is not a thoughtful, intelligent argument. In fact, it is lazy thinking. If we took the time to think of where all our tax funds go, would we agree with everything that is funded, and why would funding Serrano’s photo be any different? Keep in mind that Serrano clearly states that he is a Christian in his defense letter to the NEA (please read his letter at the bottom of assignment #6 details). If the majority of people who pay taxes got to decide what an artist can or cannot express with a tax funded grant, what kind of predictable, thoughtless and uncreative results would occur with the funding? If Serrano is a Christian, which he makes very clear in his defense letter, and he pays taxes, would this not allow him access to NEA funding for his work?
An example of an intelligent response in opposition to tax payers not funding such a photograph would be: The Constitution of The United States guarantees a separation of church and state, and tax payers who are not religious (or specifically – Christian) should not have to fund something that is clearly a religious expression. This kind of statement begins to build a more thoughtful, intelligent response to the topic.
I also don’t want to hear arguments about how you think the photograph is “gross” or “disgusting” because Serrano employs his own semen, urine and blood in his work. This is also not an intelligent argument for why his work should not be funded. Whatever position you take (for or against the funding of Serrano’s photos), please build intelligent, thoughtful arguments. Also, keep in mind that the grant that Serrano received in 1986 did not go to fund just one photograph. It funded a series of photographs that he created. Thank you.