Magazine article The Spectator

Sword of Controversy

Magazine article The Spectator

Sword of Controversy

Article excerpt

'I've refused to become a prisoner of "Piss Christ", ' said the photographer Andres Serrano, referring to his 1987 photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass filled with urine.

But the fact remains that he has become a very wealthy prisoner of that work. The picture, created while he was the recipient of a $15,000 grant from the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which itself had received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1987-88, drew fiery condemnation from religious groups around the United States and members of Congress. Coming at the same time as a controversy over the indirectly government-sponsored exhibition of the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the outcry came close to abolishing the federal arts agency. And, recently, a copy of the same photograph was damaged by Christian fundamentalists when it went on show in Avignon last month.

The dispute over 'Piss Christ' has proved to be a 'double-edged sword', the artist said.

'Collectors rushed to support me. I've sold a lot of work, and I wouldn't have sold anywhere near that much if the controversy hadn't occurred.' The other side is that the flap broke up the artist's marriage and coloured all the work that Serrano has done or will ever do.

Public controversy or instances of censorship can't help but affect an artist in a significant way. For certain artists, there is a clear upside. 'I like to think that my career would have reached this level without the help of the FBI, ' said the photographer Jock Sturges, whose San Francisco studio was raided in 1990 by the FBI, which confiscated and destroyed many of the artist's prints and negatives of nude children before a federal grand jury failed to indict Sturges. 'Certainly, the feds pushed my career ahead by ten years.'

Perhaps, we are seeing this all happen again. David Wojnarowicz's four-minute 1987 video 'A Fire in My Belly' was yanked from a recent exhibition - Hide/Seek: Differences and Desire in American Portraiture at the Smithsonian Museum's National Portrait Gallery - because it included a segment in which live ants crawl over a crucifix. The Catholic League protested about the work's inclusion, sparking similar condemnations from a few members of Congress and, eventually, leading to the work's removal from the exhibition altogether.

The controversy led two museums to set up screenings of the Wojnarowicz video, and New York's Museum of Modern Art purchased a copy earlier this year. All this helped to bring more attention to an artist who has had a limited following to date.

'Remind me to thank the Catholic League for making this artist so popular, ' said Wendy Olsoff, co-owner of New York's PPOW art gallery, which represents the estate of Wojnarowicz. 'This has certainly helped David become better known. We're re-evaluating prices on everything. I mean, the work is ridiculously undervalued.'

However, for most artists, the sword of controversy is not double-edged. The controversy elevates an artist's name and face long enough for the individual to become the focus of death threats and hate mail, snubs from collectors, dealers and curators, with little but a tarnished reputation to show for it.

'Controversy hasn't been a fast track to success for me in the art world, ' said Kate Millett, whose 1970 'The American Dream Goes to Pot', featuring an American flag partially stuffed into a toilet behind prison bars, has been picketed by veterans' groups and others whenever it has been displayed. …

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