When Art Fuels Anger, Who Should Prevail?

Controversial artworks are flashpoints when artistic freedom and religious sensitivities collide.

Andres Serrano’s artwork “Piss Christ,” a 1987 photograph depicting a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine, ignited controversy in Congress and exposed tensions between artistic freedom and religious sensitivity that remain visible today.

Some members of Congress, particularly conservative Republicans, expressed outrage that the National Endowment for the Arts had awarded federal prize money to Serrano for the artwork, decrying it as blasphemous. Debate over federal funding for the arts led to efforts to restrict N.E.A. funding and establish standards of decency.

“Art should be to celebrate the human experience, not to mock it,” Representative Dick Armey, a Texas Republican, said at the time. “I saw ‘Piss Christ’ as a blatant and ruthless mockery of the Christian religion.”

“What a disgrace!” exclaimed Senator Al D’Amato from the Senate floor, as he ripped an image of the artwork from an art catalog.

In 1990, four artists who were denied N.E.A. funding sued, alleging that their First Amendment rights were violated by Congress’s decency clause. They lost in the Supreme Court, which found that decency was a permissible standard for federal funding.

More than 30 years later, another controversy emerged at Macalester College. Some students objected to an exhibit at a campus gallery by Taravat Talepasand, whose work is a commentary on the oppression of women in majority-Muslim countries. The students argued that provocative drawings of women in religious dress were offensive, and demanded that they be removed.

“It’s insulting to many students who are seeing in that hijab a symbol of faith and family and religion,” Marouane El Bahraoui, a student, told Retro Report. “When the art is offensive to a specific group – it’s invading your own space, coming to your own school – then taking it down is acceptable.”

For teachers
  • Producer / Narrator: Joseph Hogan
  • Editor: Anne Checler