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Artist Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" photo has caused more anguish, more anger that just about any piece of art in American history. Yesterday, while on display in France, it was destroyed by a fundamentalist Christian group:
Controversy has followed the work ever since, but reached an unprecedented peak on Palm Sunday when it was attacked with hammers and destroyed after an "anti-blasphemy" campaign by French Catholic fundamentalists in the southern city of Avignon.... The violent slashing of the picture, and another Serrano photograph of a meditating nun, has plunged secular France into soul-searching about Christian fundamentalism and Nicolas Sarkozy's use of religious populism in his bid for re-election next year.... It also marks a return to an old standoff between Serrano and the religious right that dates back more than 20 years, to Reagan-era Republicanism in the US..... The photograph, full title Immersion (Piss Christ), was made in 1987 as part of Serrano's series showing religious objects submerged in fluids such as blood and milk. In 1989, rightwing Christian senators' criticism of Piss Christ led to a heated US debate on public arts funding. Republican Jesse James told the senate Serrano was "not an artist. He's a jerk.".... Serrano defended his photograph as a criticism of the "billion-dollar Christ-for-profit industry" and a "condemnation of those who abuse the teachings of Christ for their own ignoble ends". It was vandalised in Australia, and neo-Nazis ransacked a Serrano show in Sweden in 2007.
But there are other disturbing aspects to this controversy that need addressing. Did the French Christians have a right to destroy it? Art, as we learned when growing up, is in the eye of the beholder. You and I might not see eye to eye on whether Serrano's hateful photo was "art" or not, but does that give you the right to destroy it? And if not, isn't it suppressing free speech?
But we can't destroy what many consider to be art. There is no "majority rule" in judging artistic expression. There is no threshold of support that an artist must cross before his work is protected as legitimate expression. The French vandals were dead wrong in destroying the work. Their attack was an assault on free speech itself - something we either have, or don't. The vandals say we don't. I say we do, and consequently, must condemn all such acts - whether performed by the Taliban or fundamentalist Christians - as an attack on our most cherished beliefs. Living in a free society is not easy. Destroying art makes it even harder.