Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ is the original shock art

Before sharks swam in formaldehyde, there was Piss Christ. With this work in 1987, Andres Serrano created what is surely the visual manifesto and original prototype of the use of shock in contemporary art.

Other 1980s artists, including Robert Mapplethorpe and Richard Serra, ran into controversy, but Piss Christ is distinguished by its calculated offence and rhetorical nature – the way it sets out to be unmissably outrageous and adopts that offence as part of its meaning.

I mean, it’s called Piss Christ and is said to be made using the artist’s own urine. It is far more polemical than, say, a Mapplethorpe photograph of sadomasochist rites where the artist portrays what he found beautiful and causes offence almost accidentally. As such, Piss Christ is one of the most influential works of art of the past 30 years, the model for a strategy that has transformed the public impact of art.

Yet the joke on the latest protesters to take Serrano’s bait — hey look, Christians, I’ve urinated on the son of God! — is that Piss Christ works well as a modern work of religious art. I don’t know if the curators of the Vatican museum have considered buying a print, but it possesses a richly traditional dimension. The passion of Christ has always been associated with bodily fluids — it is true that artists traditionally stressed blood rather than urine, but they scarcely stinted on the revulsion of Christ’s fleshly death.

Piss Christ can be legitimately compared to the horrible sores and green pus on the body of Grunewald’s Christ in the Isenheim altarpiece, or painted wooden statues in baroque churches with their lifelike gore and jewelled tears, or Caravaggio’s Saint Thomas sticking his finger in Christ’s spear wound.

Serrano’s crucifix evokes the same kind of popular religiosity Andy Warhol paid homage to in his Last Supper series, another artistic highlight of the 1980s, and just as Warhol was a sincere Catholic, Serrano created a vivid and intense baroque image of the passion. The suffering of Christ is seen through a glass, darkly — or in this case shines through yellow urine, glowing uncannily within the stinking detritus of the body.

There’s something in this powerful work of art for everyone. Atheists can savour its insult, Christians can meditate on the victory of the spirit in the humiliation of the flesh. Meanwhile, the easily provoked will never fail to have their anger aroused by a work of art that is spoiling for a fight. –

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

R350 social relief grant not enough to live on

Nearly half of the population in South Africa — one of the most unequal countries in the world — is considered chronically poor.

More top stories

Afrobeats conquer the world

From Grammys to sold-out concerts, the West African music phenomenon is going mainstream

R350 social relief grant not enough to live on

Nearly half of the population in South Africa — one of the most unequal countries in the world — is considered chronically poor.

US fashion contaminates Africa’s water

Untreated effluent from textile factories in in Lesotho, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mauritius and Madagascar pours into rivers, contaminating the water

Deep seabed mining a threat to Africa’s coral reefs

The deep oceans are a fragile final frontier, largely unknown and untouched but mining companies and governments — other than those in Africa — are eying its mineral riches

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…