Banned Books in Australia A Special Collections-Art in the Library Exhibition

Blasphemy and Andres Serrano

David Bennett

In 1989, following the turmoil surrounding Rushdie’s blasphemies against Islam in The Satanic Verses, little-known Brooklyn artist Andres Serrano was shot to fame for blaspheming Christianity. A reproduction of his photograph entitled Piss Christ, depicting a plastic crucifix submerged in a tank of the artist’s urine, was torn up on the floor of the US Senate by a scandalised Jesse Helms. Senator Helms was waging a campaign against public funding of what he deemed obscene or blasphemous art, supported by the American Family Association, an evangelical Christian group expert in publicising its cause through censorship campaigns.

In his defence, Serrano explained that he had had a deeply Catholic upbringing and that Piss Christ was a meditation on the central mystery of the Christian faith, the Incarnation, posing the question of whether divinity is compromised by association with ‘base’ bodily functions such as excretion.

In 1997, the ‘Serrano Affair’ was re-run in Melbourne: the now-famous Serrano was invited to Australia as a celebrity guest of the Melbourne International Arts Festival and Piss Christ was included in an exhibition of his photographs in the National Gallery of Victoria. Catholic Archbishop George Pell and the Australian Family Association attempted to reactivate Australian blasphemy laws by seeking an injunction against the opening of the NGV exhibition. The Victorian Supreme Court rejected their suit, arguing that Australia, as a multicultural and tolerant society, ‘need not bother with blasphemous libel’, an anachronistic offence inherited from English law in which the State is linked intrinsically with an established Church (a relationship prohibited in the Australian constitution).

However, when the exhibition opened, Piss Christ was attacked with a hammer by an evangelical Christian visitor to the NGV and, controversially, the gallery’s director withdrew it from the exhibition.

In 1998, a follow-up attempt was made by a Christian group to sue the NGV under Victoria’s anti-discrimination laws, claiming it had discriminated against Christians by displaying Piss Christ; the suit was dismissed by VCAT.

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