Art and the Piss Christ umbrella


Piss Christ Umbrella, by Chris JohnstonAsk a person on the street what they think of Degas' dancers or Monet's haystacks, chances are you won't find too much controversy. After all they're not Tracy Emin or Bill Henson, or whoever it was that sent a pile of bricks to the Tate.

French Impressionism has become a veritable haven away from the jarring difficulties of the contemporary. Waterlilies, haystacks, ballet-dancers and race-days at Longchamp: the subjects are quite pointedly pleasant.

Contemporary art is less so. Ask that same person on the street how they feel about Andres Serrano's 1989 'Piss Christ', a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in the artist's urine, and immediately you'll find yourself thrown into the deepest, darkest chasms of aesthetic debate ... 'What is Art?'.

Impressionism makes for much easier conversation, and as we face recessions, depressions and global warming there has never been a better time for it. Despite being no closer to Paris than before, Australia in recent months has been recently spoilt with a glut of impressionist art: Monet and the impressionists in Sydney, Degas at the National. Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir: their names are big and popular, their subjects pleasant and non-controversial.

I particularly wanted to see the Degas exhibition, not least because I lost my faith in him, as many do, in a less than fully-fledged undergraduate enlightenment. Needless to say 'Degas the misogynist' is a commonplace topic.

Impressionism was a controversial move away from the art of the time. But it has become increasingly difficult to revisit these paintings from that perspective as the big-name branding of art has become more common. Paintings that once would have once sparked discussion now sit happily on biscuit tins, umbrellas, notebooks and a whole range of other 'great-master' branded merchandise.

We have killed the controversy and challenges faced in the past by branding it to death. As the old masters have ceased to be confrontational, we are the ones who miss out.

The problem with brands is that they are necessarily simple and identifiable. Good, bad, cheap, expensive: it is easy to surrender our opinions to the all-knowing brand. The cult of celebrity has 'hit' art and it has altered both our perspective and our behaviour towards it. We visit Paris to see 'the real Mona Lisa', cram ourselves in to see 'a real Monet'.

The Great Masters have become A-list celebs and beneath the magnifying lens of time they have become larger and more intimidating than ever. The issue is not that these works are popular. That is a good thing. The issue is that in the  face of this endorsement we've lost our confidence to re-explore them. It's not surprising that aesthetics have fallen out of fashion: we are all too fraught to say anything.

This is the advantage of the contemporary. It may be jarring, confronting and sometimes just questionable, but we feel liberated enough to have an opinion. We are happy to discuss whether Emin's unmade bed, creatively entitled 'My Bed', is really Art. We have an opinion on the Tate's purchase of a pile of bricks. We feel justified in abhorring the thought of photographing a crucifix in a vat of urine. Everyone has an opinion on contemporary art.

But when it comes to the big names of the past we're more reluctant to engage. Their names in glittering lights, the tombs of art history willing to interpret it for us, merchandise repeating the images from floor to ceiling of the gallery shop, and the awful feeling that you might just 'get it wrong': the celebrity of Art with a capital 'A' has overwhelmed us.

But despite the all the hype with which we have come to surround these names and pieces, the actual works on those gallery walls continue to compel us. Even now Degas' works are confrontational, voyeuristic and arguably misogynistic. But they are also incredible. Although we may find it easier to tidy up this contradiction into something more marketable and familiar, it would be reductive actually do so.

In years to come people might own umbrellas emblazoned with 'Piss Christ' and have miniature versions of the Tate's bricks upon their mantelpieces. But if they cease to discuss these pieces or ceast to try to enter into the mindset that was shocked by them in the first place, they will have missed the point.

The power of Impressionism Co. to maintain interest in turbulent times is commendable. But if we continue to reduce life, art, history, and even religion down to what is simple and marketable, we may one day find that the complexities and confrontations that compelled us to explore it in the first place have been forgotten. If all we have left is the umbrella and the biscuit tin then the economic crisis is the least of our worries.

Degas: Master of French Art is on at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until 22 March 2009. 

Jessica FrawleyJessica Frawley is a Sydney writer and academic. Originally from London, she received a BA (Hons) in English and Philosophy from the University of Leeds, and on graduating went to work for the UN's Maritime Organization in London. 

Topic tags: Jessica Frawely, degas, Master of French Art, national gallery canberra, Andres Serrano, Piss Christ


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Existing comments

I dont have too many words to say, so I won't use the whole word count, but with a headline like that, I am not interested in reading the rest.

Anne Lastman | 02 March 2009

Thank you for this thoughtful article. I will go and try again but work a bit harder.
mary sheehan | 02 March 2009

Ah, the power of a headline! Anne Lastman unfortunately missed a pleasant discussion about how we perceive and receive works of art.

A major difference between 'great art' from the past and contemporary art is that for most of society apart from fine arts grads, great art is part of the world we are born into. We might love it, hate it or ignore it - but it is there. Rather like eucalypts and willows, we might prefer the one more than the other - or feel that the context determines which tree is aesthetically more pleasing. But to have an intense discussion about the trees?

By comparison, contemporary art is placed before us in exhibitions and/or in the press, as something inherently new, something which fits into a modern context with which any of us as participant or observer might be well acquainted. Rather like fine arts grads visiting an impressionist exhibition, many in society have a context in which to discuss both the aesthetics and the broader meaning of contemporary art. And yes, most of us can share Jessica's distaste at the debasement of art, history and religion in the cause of marketing.
Ian Fraser | 02 March 2009

Incorrect - the controversy is dissipated by familiarity and time - not commercial use. Simply, the Impressionists' works have lost the 'shock of the New'.
Michael | 02 March 2009

Ian Fraser I was one of those who protested Serrano's so called "art" it didn't/doesn't deserve discussion or respect. I know how I perceived the headline, just as I knew how I perceived Serrano's trash.

Anne Lastman | 02 March 2009

The art of doing Art has lost its way when the artists forgot about life being a battle ground of good and evil and stopped looking for the ultimate good. And the critics prefer to be shocked instead of looking for uplifting insights. It is good that those with enough common sense will not be bamboozled into following those heading for the cliffs.
Elizabeth | 02 March 2009

Thought provoking article.

Did the 1890s know the phenomenon of the deliberately managed scandal, of which I think Piss Christ is an example?

We only know the figure was immersed in urine because the artist tells us so, and then invites us to be upset about it.

Managed scandals can then be repeated, staged managed at other venues.

An exhibition of Maplethorpe's photographs excited little comment in two American cities, then at a third conservative interests were 'outraged' and had it restricted or banned.

When the same show hit the Art Gallery of Western Australia some months later, someone made sure the right people were outraged in turn, it was banned, and another venue was hurriedly arranged.

Needless to say the show was a runaway success.

Take the scandal away, and future generations will be able to judge whether anything is left to appreciate.
Geoff Vivian | 02 March 2009

For your information, the 'pile of bricks' is by Carl Andre, one of the best sculptors of the 1960s. He did not simply 'send the Tate a pile of bricks'. A major art institution bought a major sculpture by an important artist, which was made with bricks. Big difference.

It would be nice if those dismissing the worth of a whole half century of artistic production would actually pay attention to the specific works.

Also, refusing to differentiate between 'contemporary' works in terms of quality is much worse than having lost the 'shock of the new' in relation to the (at the time quite controversial) work of the impressionists.

For example, (in my opinion) while Carl Andre's works create amazing art encounters and challenge our aesthetic sensibilities, Serrano's Piss Christ is a ham-fisted work whose provocation is trying to cover up just how conventional (boring) it is as an artwork.
Trevor S | 04 April 2009

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