NARRATION: In the late 1980s, 37-year-old Andres Serrano set out to push artistic boundaries.

ANDRES SERRANO (ARTIST): I decided there was something new I wanted to investigate – this idea of making photographs that were, in a way, for me, going against the grain of photography.

ANDRES SERRANO (DISPLAYING A BOOK OF HIS PHOTOGRAPHY): The works, they’re photographs but they’re very flat, plain, they look like abstractions. And so this is blood, monochrome of blood, and then monochrome of milk, piss.

ANDRES SERRANO: And then I decided to do something different. I decided to immerse an object into these fluids. And so the object that I immersed was a crucifix.

ANDRES SERRANO (DISPLAYING A BOOK OF HIS PHOTOGRAPHY): And this is the first immersion, “Piss Christ.”

NARRATION: For that photograph and other work, the relatively unknown Serrano received a $15,000 award that was partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which captured national attention.

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 7-26-89):
NEWS REPORT: This photograph by Andres Serrano of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine.

ARCHIVAL (NBC, 7-12-89):
NEWS REPORT: It was this painting by artist Andres Serrano, Christ submerged in the artist’s urine.

ARCHIVAL (NBC, 7-12-89):
REPRESENTATIVE ROBERT WALKER: An artist who is urinating in a bottle and sticking a crucifix in it and calling it art!

ANDRES SERRANO: I never had anything like this explode over my work.

NARRATION: Before long, the issue of whether his work should have received any federal funding from the N.E.A. was debated in Congress.

ARCHIVAL (5-18-89):
SENATOR ALFONSE D’AMATO: Here’s a picture. The title: “Piss Christ.”

ANDRES SERRANO: Alfonse D’Amato had a picture of the catalog with “Piss Christ” in it, and he ripped it up.

ARCHIVAL (5-18-89):

ANDRES SERRANO: Senator Jesse Helms got up on the Senate floor and denounced me.

SENATOR JESSE HELMS: I don’t even acknowledge that it’s art. I don’t even acknowledge that the fellow who did it was an artist. I think he was a jerk.

ANDRES SERRANO: The whole art world went crazy, and the culture wars started.

ARCHIVAL (CBS, 3-29-91): 
DAN RATHER: A national debate over what is art, what is smut, and who should decide?

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 7-26-89):
PETER JENNINGS: Are members of Congress meant to be defenders of a particular public taste?

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 7-26-89):
REPRESENTATIVE DICK ARMEY: What I’m most concerned about is the expenditure of public funds in callous disregard of the standards of the public.

NARRATION: Texas Congressman Dick Armey was among those in Congress calling for an end to federal funding of any work that could potentially be deemed obscene, even blasphemous.

DICK ARMEY (FORMER HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER, R-TEXAS): Art should be to celebrate the human experience, not to mock it, and I saw Piss Christ as a blatant and ruthless mockery of the Christian religion.

NARRATION: Other artists who’d received N.E.A. money were swept up in the furor.

ARCHIVAL (NBC, 5-5-90):
NEWS REPORT: The controversy exploded over an exhibition by the late photographer Robert Maplethorpe.

ARCHIVAL (1989):
NEWS REPORT: Some of Mappelthorpe’s images are homosexual and erotic.

ARCHIVAL (1992):
SENATOR JESSE HELMS: We are talking about these sleezeballs who have been getting money from the N.E.A. under the pretext of having produced something that they call art.

ARCHIVAL (1992):
SENATOR GORDON HUMPHREY: It’s an outrage, and we ought to terminate the National Endowment for the Arts because there will be no end to this argument and controversy over what is art and what isn’t. 

NARRATION: Congress trimmed the N.E.A.’s funding and eventually imposed a requirement that the agency take into consideration general standards of decency in funding future projects. 

ARCHIVAL (NBC, 7-12-89):
NEWS REPORT: It is a warning to the arts world that some lawmakers are waiting and watching for their chance to legislate quality, taste, and substance.

NARRATION: But a backlash grew among those who felt it was a First Amendment issue. 

ARCHIVAL (NBC, 7-12-89):
NEWS REPORT: Supporters of free speech, artists and gay activists were enraged, and projected the photographs on the gallery walls during a demonstration.

ARCHIVAL (1992):
PROTESTER: Roll up, roll up, it’s the N.E.A. circus! Come and hit Jesse in the nose!

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 7-26-89):
ANDRES SERRANO: The right is trying to, you know, restrict the freedom of expression in the arts, and this is the perfect tool for them in that respect. 

ANDRES SERRANO: When “Piss Christ” happened, the government was giving marching bands in America more money than they were giving to the N.E.A.. It wasn’t about the money, it was about the offense.

DICK ARMEY: I think I stand on pretty solid ground if I say the artwork called “Piss Christ” is offensive to the vast majority of the American people.  If you say – I like it – boy, I’d say hey, dig in your own pocket.  Buy it.  Take it home.  Put it on your mantle.  Cherish it.  Enjoy it.  But don’t ask me to pay for it.

NARRATION: In 1990, four artists who lost out on N.E.A. funding sued over Congress’s decency clause. Their case made it to the Supreme Court, and they lost. Congress, the Court said, could choose to withhold funding from potentially offensive art. 

DICK ARMEY: Will artists continue to paint dirty and offensive pictures? Yeah, they’ll do that.  They’ll do it forever, but at least when we dispense the public funds, we can establish some criteria that will inhibit their doing of it.

NARRATION: More than 30 years later, a similar controversy over what to do about art that offends erupted at Macalester College, during an exhibit of artist Taravat Talepasand, whose work is a commentary on the oppression of women in countries like Iran.

TARAVAT TALEPASAND (ARTIST): The point of really making this work was to share images of how women can look and could be in the Middle East, ’cause that’s something that you never or rarely really see. 

NARRATION: But some Muslim students, like Marouane El Bahraoui, thought the private college shouldn’t exhibit provocative drawings of women in religious dress which they found offensive.

MAROUANE EL BAHRAOUI (STUDENT, MACALESTER COLLEGE): It’s, like, insulting to many, many students who are seeing in that hijab a symbol of faith and family and religion.  I think when the art is insulting to a specific group, when it’s invading your own space, when it’s coming to your own school, then taking it down is acceptable. 

NARRATION: The college closed the gallery, covering its windows with black curtains.

TARAVAT TALEPASAND: Literally veiling the exhibition and the neon “woman, life, freedom,” which I thought was absolutely absurd, because the protest and the revolution in Iran is against the veiling of women.

NARRATION: After a few days, the college came up with a compromise: frosted glass windows to prevent so-called “nonconsensual viewing,” and content warnings on the door. 

TARAVAT TALEPASAND: It sucks. It really does suck to know that you’ve offended somebody without even trying to. I really want to be considerate about peoples’ feelings and, and peoples’ beliefs.  But if I think the work needs to be drawn or rendered or painted in a certain way, I’m going to go with that.  I always go with my gut.   

NARRATION: For Andres Serrano, that attitude has paid off. 

ANDRES SERRANO: As an artist, this controversy emboldened me because I felt like – wow, I did that? And, if I could, you know – I felt like if I could take the heat, I’m staying in the kitchen.  And I’ve stayed there ever since.

NARRATION: “Piss Christ,” still his most famous work, hangs mainly in private collections. Over the years, prints of it were vandalized in France and in Australia, after a Catholic bishop called for it to be banned. Yet Serrano has continued to explore religious themes in his work.

ANDRES SERRANO: So this is my apartment. My aesthetic is a Christian aesthetic, and so I’m surrounded by the symbols of the church. And as a collector, I love living with these things. This piece is amazing. It’s a little bigger than life-size and it’s 16th century.

NARRATION: Serrano has always maintained that his Catholic upbringing influenced his notorious photograph. It was a comment on the brutality of crucifixion.

ANDRES SERRANO: I don’t think my work is blasphemous, of course. If I did, I wouldn’t do it because I’m a good Christian, even though I don’t talk about it.

NARRATION: These days, if Serrano is feeling vindicated after years of controversy, it’s for good reason. In June, Pope Francis gathered a group of artists and writers in the Sistine Chapel for a dialogue on how contemporary art can promote social change. 

ANDRES SERRANO: I was surprised, but I was also thinking, my God, my, my dream. They’ve invited me. I think the Vatican understands that I am an artist, a Christian artist, who has always maintained that my work is not blasphemous. I said, your holiness, my name is Andres Serrano, and that’s when he took my hand, he smiled, and then he gave me a thumbs up.