Piss Christ, by Andres Seranno

In a previous post about a friend I had when I was younger, I wrote :

Once upon a time he had smart, witty, and ambitious young ladies swooning over him and girls of modelesque beauty competing for him and the last two girlfriends of his that I met were mediocre-looking art school dropouts crafting the lowest form of amateur adolescent/post-adolescent art… poetry.

My friend Kyle and I went to hang out at a mutual friend’s house last week. The mutual friend’s wife is a professional graphic designer and a visual artist of many stripes. While I feel a bit self-conscious about the bare 12 year old anime character hanging on the wall of our bedroom, our apartment has nothing on their house. Hanging on their wall is some abstract piece with an unclothed woman on all fours. The front half of her is on the bottom left of the piece and the back half is on the upper right. That’s about all their is to the painting.

Kyle’s wife commented that she was unimpressed. They’d also apparently been to an art showing a while back where he was similarly unimpressed. Kyle’s a pretty culturally liberal guy, but there’s only so much art with genitalia placed against a backdrop of this or that before it gets sort of boring.

I responded:

You don’t UNDERSTAND! They’re SPEAKING OUT against our SEXUALLY REPRESSIVE CULTURE. They’re expressing their SEXUAL FREEDOM by exposing our PURITANICAL SOCIETY and all its taboos. If you fail to appreciate their artwork, you’ve been BRAINWASHED by the religious zealotry of our culture that seeks to control us by making us ASHAMED OF OUR BODIES!!!!

Or… alternately…

They’re EXPOSING THE POINTLESSNESS OF LIFE AND MORALITY by taking our most private parts and putting it out there for all the world to see! They are taking that which we see as SACRED and DEFILING IT as a grand tribute to the NIHILISM that is our culture, every culture, and LIFE ITSELF!!!!

I don’t know if that’s what the guy with the painting of the penis in the wine glass was aiming for, and it’s almost certainly not the terminology that he would use, but I’d be surprised it wasn’t along the lines of one of the above options or something else equally inane.

But it’s not the point that they’re making that bothers me. Yeah, sure, exploring what we do believe (sexual freedom or opposition to it) or don’t believe (nihilism) has been done, but there are few areas of art that haven’t. It’s not even the repetitiveness of it within the anti-commercial art world, necessarily. What irritates me a little bit about it is that they do something simple, assign the more complicated task of interpretation to the viewer, dismiss criticism of it as a failure on the part of the viewer, and take credit for the viewer’s ability to see the patterns in the static and find some grand meaning in the image of a penis wrapped around a can of aerosol or a Jesus dumped in a jar of urine or whatever.

The problem with a lot of abstract art, of freestyle poetry, or of any sort of extremely abstract art, is two-fold:

  1. Bad art is incredibly easy to make.
  2. Good art and bad art are not easily compared or differentiated from one another.

Take the absolute worst action film you’ve ever seen. The worse, the better for our purposes. For me it was a movie called Terminal Impact, about a cop trying to bust an organization that’s taking college students (that look way too old to be college students) and turning them into cyborg warriors. The movie was so bad and so destined for obvious failure that the only hope they had of selling it was to name it similar to a Charlie Sheen movie called Terminal Velocity that came out a couple years earlier, replicate the font of the movie’s title, and cross their fingers and hope that people get confused in the video store and say “Hey, Terminal Impact. That’s the one with Charlie Sheen, right? Let’s not even look on the back and rent it anyway!” Notably, after the Terminal Velocity is forgotten, Terminal Impact was renamed Cyborg Cop III so that they could sell it as a trilogy with two completely unrelated movies with the guy who played the American Ninja in the third and fourth American Ninja movies.

Despite all this, Terminal Impact is in some ways more impressive to me than Piss Christ. Say what I will about the movie, but TI took quite of big of effort to make. Sure, they didn’t have the special effects of the Terminator, but their were motorcycle chases and some explosions. More than that, though, there were sound people and lighting people and people that played their parts (I hesitate to call them “actors”). Production costs I’m sure ran somewhere into the thousands. Money was raised, allocated, and spent. Piss Christ required a crucifix, urine, a jar, and some great lighting.

Further, Terminal Impact can rather easily be judged on its own merits. I judged it and found it lacking. Compare Terminal Impact with its namesake or any Jean Claude Van Damme movie or even American Ninja IV (which coincidentally was the worst action movie I’d seen prior to TI). You not only have something to compare it to, you but you have technical merits in addition to artistic ones that you can judge it with. With the aerosol can, all you can say technically is “Yep, that looks like a weewee. Yep, that’s a spray can that says ‘aerosol’ on it.”

I’m not saying that abstract art isn’t art and that it cannot be really, really good. It really can. The problem is the “e. e. cummings Effect”, wherein the comparatively few good artists are swamped by the lazy ones that don’t want to put any effort into adhering to any guidelines or doing any of the work that less abstract art work requires.

When I was in junior high I used to write comic books. The original ones weren’t very good, but I did put some effort into them and the thought and effort I put into them became the building blocks with which I started producing works that were good (in my opinion, at least). But for a while after the original ones, I got lazy. I found a formula to use to used it over and over and over again (though, to my credit, I was able to use the established pattern to make later deviations more interesting and humorous than they otherwise would have been). By virtue of the comic book medium, it wasn’t hard to tell that they sucked. With abstract art, there’s no way to tell, and thus for people that don’t want to make the effort, it’s an extremely easy way out. Just let the audience to the heavy lifting.

When it comes to the creation of something — most things — there is a mixture of artistry and craftsmanship. Even utilitarian things things such as cars that are meant to drive us places have artistry impressed upon it to make it look like something we want to be seen in. Carpentry is making something useful but also making it aesthetically pleasing. Movies are meant to entertain us, but pre-production requires a lot of thought and the production requires a lot of work. Novels are a mixture of ideas (artistry) and presentation (craftsmanship). Art without craft leads to the proliferation of crap.

And so it is with poetry. I was a bad poet once. I wrote poetry because I didn’t know how to write prose well. A poem is much easier to write than a book and if you go all “freestyle” you remove any effort at all. Maddox nailed it when he offered the following tips on writing (bad) poetry:

Writing bad poetry is easy when you disregard meter, pace, and rhyming scheme. Just make sure to follow a few simple guidelines:
1. Never write about anything cheerful. Remember, you are a tortured artist. Be one.
2. Be sure to use the following words at least once per sentence, no fewer than 50 times per poem: lament, loathe, soul, darkness, bitter, agony, despair, misery, anguish, pain, suffer, woe, hate, death, love, sultry, angel, rose, acrid and nihilism. Nihilism is a good one because it comes up all the time in normal conversations.

It’s easy, here’s a sample to get you started:

fire… burning… agony…
sultry shivers of a dark essence
why am i tortured with this nihilistic existence?
bitter… darkness… despair.

notice the constant lower case? i added that touch to be unique. unique people type in lower case.

That is the tragedy which e. e. cummings has wrought. Generations of young people that can just string together some sentences with some basic idea in mind and allow themselves to think that they’ve created something worthwhile.

Category: Coffeehouse, Theater

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11 Responses to Art on the Cheap & Easy

  1. Bobvis says:

    sorry. i have to violently oppose the point about something being better because time, labor, and money went into its production. the rest of your points are great, but what is intrinsically wrong with art on the cheap and easy? photography is famously cheap and easy. still, it can be good. In fact, that can add to the piece by increasing its elegance and unexpectedness.

    I hate to say it, but I think there is some analog in academic research. By and large, people respect you doing more work. I might be different from many of my colleagues though in that I think the best papers often involved the authors doing very little work. It is because it is these papers required instead piercing insights. I’ll take a piercing insight over “this is how I spent 12 hours a day for the last 2 years.”

  2. trumwill says:

    The notion that more work equals a better product really isn’t the point that I was trying to make. It’s not one I really agree with. I think Clerks was a lot better movie than Armageddon. In fact, I’ll go further and say that I wish movies had smaller budgets so that more thought would go into the script process, but that’s a different subject.

    Rather, what I would say that there are two says to impress me. If someone spends 12 hours a day for 2 years doing in pursuit of something (either academic or artistic) that is going to impress me even if I am not particularly enamored with the final product. If someone creates something easily and what they create is really good, then I may be even more impressed.

    The problem is when something is accomplished easily and but it’s value is not immediately apparent. It provides a sort of loophole for people that want to be artistic but don’t want to spend to the time it takes to be any good. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t innately talented people that can pull it off stupendously. It does mean that it’s going to attract a lot of people that can’t pull it off but also know that they can’t be graded by most people and those grades they do receive can be more easily contested.

  3. bbass says:

    I think you’re missing a major point of Piss Christ. It could equally well function as a statement about how the light of Christ shines through the filth of our world, or how we do not recognize the filth because of the presence of Christ. It’s these things, juxtaposed against your rather nihilistic interpretations, that really start to “say” things, man, about what religion is and what society’s reactions to religion are. Just because a work of art is subject to multiple interpretations or requires a bit of interpretation doesn’t mean it’s bad; rather the opposite.

    That said, a lot of work of this type is insipid.

  4. Webmaster says:

    This reminds me of an article I saw on a couple who made quite a stir in the art community.

    Their trick; they gave their 5 year old daughter finger paints, a large canvas, and told her to have fun. Then they went to various auctions and shows and presented the work as if it was the work of the mother, whence it was given rave reviews by people all agog over abstract impressionist art… until the last day, when the “secret” (that it was done by a 5-year-old) was revealed to all concerned.

  5. trumwill says:

    I’m not really denigrating the artistic merit of Piss Christ (or not intending to). Even without that interpretation, it’s quite visually stimulating. I use that as an example of something that lends artistic credibility to works that are easy to create (once conceived) or at least give the appearance of being easily conceived. Piss Christ may be artistically worthwhile, but a lot of the work that it inspires and lends credibility to is not.

  6. ecco says:

    I sympathize because I’ve been put through my share of bad art imitations. While I think good craftsmanship is important, I don’t think there is a direct correlation with the amount of time spent on something. I think Bob’s choice of photography is a good example of this. I think sometimes a photographer can take a picture, and it’ll come out great. On the other hand, there can be long periods of very crappy pictures before a great new picture comes out. That long period of crappy pictures may have contributed to the good picture that came later, but then again maybe they didn’t. Do others think great works come randomly or does a long string of failures actually lead to something good in the end?

  7. trumwill says:

    I don’t think that there is a direct correlation between how long something takes and how artistically worthwhile it is. I do think that there is some correlation if only because the easiest stuff can attract the least artistic people.

    I see a lot more in the way of bad poetry and bad photography than I do bad pin-up artwork. What makes poetry (and abstract art) so much more problematic is that unlike photography, it’s much more difficult to tell what is good and what isn’t, allowing people to believe that they’ve made something great and anyone that disagrees just doesn’t get it.

    You actually bring up a good point about bad art inspiring good art. I think it much, much more frequently works the other way… but I do think it happens. When I was in high school I wrote up a big treatment on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and how I would make it so that it doesn’t completely suck. I can see a good artist look at bad artwork and saying “I see the semblence of a good idea here. Maybe I can make something good with that.” I doubt it happens frequently enough to overcome the discredit that it does to their field. Nobody should hate bad poetry more than a good poet.

  8. Spungen says:

    Wait a second, I agree with you about the arrogant suckiness, but why are we blaming it on e.e.? Didn’t his poems have form, rhyme, meter, and layers of meaning?

    From high school lit class memory:

    anyone lived in a pretty how town
    with up so floating many bells down
    spring summer autumn winter
    he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

    women and men both little and small
    cared for anyone not at all
    he sowed his isn’t he reaped his came
    sun moon stars rain

    (He meets someone, falls and love, gets married and dies.)

  9. Spungen says:

    Huh, I was pretty close.

  10. trumwill says:

    Some of his poems did and stuck to form, but some didn’t.

    I remember a conversation in senior English class wherein a dark-clad young lady asked why rhyme and meter were so important when e.e. didn’t use them (she was the first of many people I know to use him as a shield). The teacher explained that it was important that cummings knew how to use the rules so that he knew when he should adhere to them and when he shouldn’t. Sort of like you need to know how to do figure skates while ice skating before you can really do any of the creative stuff skillfully. The inquisitor was unimpressed with his logic.

  11. Amit says:

    That is an impressive photograph as you admit. It could be called _Sunset at Golgotha (Mixed Media)_ if Andres Serrano didn’t want to be provocative.

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