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This essay was written in 2011 to accompany my exhibition Nightwood, and presented at East Street Arts’ ‘Thought For Food’ meal sharing and seminar series. The essay grew out of an ‘in conversation event’ held as part of the exhibition, curated by Judit Bodor and chaired by the writer Jake Arnott, in which I and the writer David Peace discussed the mythologies of violent and sexual crime in relation to our own respective practices, and the wider issues of ‘offence,’ blasphemy’ and ‘artistic freedom’ in contemporary practice. I am posting it here as I have drawn on some of these ideas for a guest blog piece commissioned by Longbarrow Press, following my invitation to accompany the editor Brian Lewis and the poet Chris Jones on a secular pilgrimage to the surviving pre-reformation church art in Lincolnshire – the inspiration for Jones’ poem sequence ‘Death and the Gallant’ in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. You can read the guest blog piece here.


 ‘… which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled …’ The First Epistle of John 1:1, KJV

In 2009 a posthumous collection of Gordon Burn’s writings on art, Sex And Violence, Death And Silence, was published. For his foreword to this collection, entitled ‘A Thousand Deaths Surround Us…’, David Peace interviewed the artist Damien Hirst, a close friend of Gordon’s. Damien tells of Gordon coming over to his house with research material he was using for a book that he was writing about Fred and Rosemary West. In 1995 the couple were jointly accused of the torture, rape and murder of ten women. Fred hung himself whilst on remand, and so Rosemary stood trial alone. She was found guilty of all 10 murders and sentenced to life imprisonment. ‘He came down and played me the tapes of Fred West being interviewed by the police. Stayed up till like six in the morning listening to them. Did my head in, six hours of them. And then he showed me the videos, the videos of Rose. Porn videos. But I think it was doing his head in, that’s why he came down and showed them to me. He needed some company.’ A few, partial transcripts of the interviews with Fred are available on the internet, but the full recordings, and the porn videos of Rose, are almost certainly part of the body of evidence held by Gloucester CID and not publically available.

The reasons that Gordon was given access to this material were, perhaps, his reputation as a ‘serious writer’, and the quality and integrity of his work: a regular contributor to The Guardian, and winner of the Whitbread Prize for best first novel with Alma Cogan (1991). A previous non-fiction book concerning Peter Sutcliffe, ‘The Yorkshire Ripper’, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son (1984), was very far from the sensational accounts of the ‘True Crime’ industries. The outcome of Gordon’s research was Happy Like Murderers: The Story of Fred and Rosemary West (1998). An extraordinary work, its dark lyricism illuminating shadowed corners of site and psyche with brutally insistent poetic repetition; the whole grounded in an exquisitely researched social history of the cultures and landscapes of the Forest of Dean, and the migration of the rural obsolete to the towns and cities. Tiny details develop in poignant, painful colours: Heather, the daughter whom Fred and Rose killed when she was sixteen years old would write over and again on her school books and bags the letters F O D I W L: Forest of Dean I Will Live. A desperate yearning for a joyful existence; unfettered amidst the imagined boundlessness of forest and field. She ended her life amongst the concrete of the city; brutalised, murdered, dismembered; crushed and confined in a rusted dustbin, and buried under the cheap composite slabs of a badly laid patio. The final paragraphs of the book speak of the anonymous non-space that was created when the house at 25 Cromwell Street was demolished: an aptly empty mirror of the ‘home’ that for Heather, even in life, never was. ‘Underneath is the cellar void. And under the cellar five cores of concrete buried in Severn clay. The fact of something behind. Something that is inaccessible, unknown. Beyond a doubt there is something behind. It imposes itself and won’t go away. You look at the walls. You listen to the space.’ The cores of concrete, which penetrate the clay, fill the voids where the sad remains of tortured souls were laid. After the book was completed, it is reported that Gordon said he would never write about murder again.

Gordon Burn’s rights to the access and use of material that surrounds the ‘unspeakable’ might be asserted given the complexity and sensitivity of his approach. We can be reassured by his unflinching ability to ‘see’ such things with a vision untainted by the lenses of sensationalism and spectacle. Gordon then made the unilateral decision to extend the right of access to Damien Hirst, an artist whose celebrity both within and without his field is well documented, but who apparently had no direct reason to see such material. Whatever one’s feelings about Gordon’s decision, regardless of whether it was based upon artistic considerations or emotional need, the wider question arises as to who does or should have the rights to such access? Can artists, writers, and others claim special privilege under the rubric of artistic freedom? There has recently been discussion around the ethics of ‘common access’ to traumatic details of atrocities in relation to the trial of Vincent Tabak [1] for the murder of Joanna Yates; media coverage describing the wounds that transgress her blood-stained and battered body, the marks of his hands on her throat, her t-shirt raised to expose one soft bruised breast. Do we need to know these things in order to understand the horrors of such a death, or is our culture already so replete with the tropes of terror that they add nothing to either our politicised or emotional understandings, but only continue the violation of her body in death? The revelation of the imagery captured at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, which disclosed a level of inhumanity presupposed as unimaginable, is accepted as a vital part of the process whereby we confront our capacities for such evil. However, in the ensuing decades even these haunting sights have acquired a sort of gruesome nostalgia, for some individuals constituting an entertainment of erotised fascination.

Towards the end of ‘A Thousand Deaths Surround Us…’ we read Hirst’s statement that ‘crime is creative’. The concept of ‘crime’ is in some senses synonymous with that of ‘illegality’, that is, defined by legislation and law: mutable across culture and history; altered and adapted by complex matrices of reason ranging from political expediency, religious considerations, and situated emotional responses to ideas of ‘right and wrong’. The term ‘creative’ implies a transformative and Promethean process, even if shocking and confrontational. Many would argue that those crimes such as trespass, illegal industrial action, resistance, demonstration and protest, the leaking of information, or stealing in order to feed ones self and ones family could often fulfil such positive agendas. But the brutalising of souls and bodies, the ramifications of physical or psychic death – these crimes, in terms of the perpetrator’s actions, are destructive and bankrupt. In these instances, transformative outcomes, altered possibilities and new-forged paths are the work of that which is left behind, of people and places who out of necessity must re-invent, must form a creative cicatrice and find a new way. Hannah Arendt, writing about the trial of Adolf Eichmann for war crimes in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), subtitles her book ‘The Banality of Evil’. The prosaic dead language of Peter Sutcliffe in explaining his murderous acts [2], ‘her perfume annoyed me’, ‘she was disrespecting my manhood, disrespecting me as a man’, articulate a process emotionally and creatively bereft, an antithesis of humanity rendered doubly cruel by its casual narcissistic stupidity. If the right to the access and use of socially, culturally and perhaps legally prohibited material, to transgress taboo, or to justify the of breaking a law is dependent upon attaining creative status, then this position is further problematized by the subjectivity of such an assessment. Good art? Bad art? A definitive checklist is not currently available.

Controversies arising from offence, transgression, and blasphemy seem now to predominate in the arena of the visual. This emphasis has much to do with the ‘limits of language’. The ability of image and object as ‘totem’ to operate metaphorically, both as a symbol that stands in for a discrete ‘other’ and as an enclosed repository of conflation, where complex and perhaps conflicting narratives, experiences, fears, and beliefs can reside is key; this state of condensation able, if needed, to ‘make safe’ the threatening aspects of such structures. Images distil belief and experience paradigmatically, bypassing the linear constraints of linguistic description. It is a commonplace to refer to appalling acts as ‘unspeakable’, an emotional concept referring to the inability to ‘put into words’ our reactions to such violations, sights, or stories. Chris Jencks, in his book Transgression (2003), intimates, via the work of Lyng (1990), that the actuality of experiencing, witnessing, or even comprehending atrocity is overwhelming in that it becomes, paradoxically, at once both unbearably authentic and dissociatively ‘hyper-real’; that acts such as those committed by the Wests, the Moors Murderers and others have ‘walked off the edge of language’. An inability to integrate the sensations of horror, outrage and disgust into linear narrative is sometimes positioned as protective, a means of distancing or hiding away that which one cannot bear. As it is with experience and reportage, so it is with creative interpretation and representation. Books can be started then put aside unfinished, newspapers left unread. But those images that refute concealment in the age of mechanical and now digital reproduction deliver their message in a visceral instant – shock, outrage and offence disseminating virally to ever greater numbers of people, whose reactions may not only be emotional and personal, but shaped and refined by the political, religious, cultural and social groups to which they belong.

left: Myra by Marcus Harvey (1995), right: Virgin Mary, anonymous, c. C15th

left: Myra by Marcus Harvey (1995), right: Virgin Mary, anonymous, c. C15th

‘Suffer this mother’s kiss / Best thing that earthly is, / To guide the music and the glory through, / Nor narrow in Thy dream the broad upliftings / Of any seraph wing! / Thus, noiseless, thus. Sleep, sleep, my dreaming one.’ – FromThe Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus’. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1830 – 1894)

‘The death of a beautiful girl-child of no more than ten years of age is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world. The Aesthetics of Composition. E. A Pym. 1846′. From ‘My Sister My Love: The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike’. Joyce Carol Oates. 2009

The cover of Transgression incorporates Myra, a monumental painting of 1995 by the artist Marcus Harvey, which reconstructs the iconic black and white photograph Myra Hindley so beloved of the press using children’s handprints, uncannily mimicking the dots of newspaper reproduction. Hindley was the female aspect of ‘The Moors Murderers’, who in 1966 was jointly convicted with Ian Brady for the murders of five children; of which at least four were sexually assaulted and tortured. The couple tape-recorded the sufferings of one victim: Lesley Anne Downey, aged ten years old. As part of what Jencks most movingly calls ‘her passion’, the child endured a mutilation of her hands: small soft fingers pruned from her sapling body with snips and secateurs. Of the two, the greatest revulsion was directed at Hindley, her gender magnifying her atrocities through the lens of a feminine ideal. The dark inverse of the Marian exemplar, her children were not given but stolen, not blessed but cursed, not lamentations but exultations were her cries before a body torn and destroyed. As we move our gaze from Mary to Myra, the schism is so absolute that our vision cannot comprehend a graduated spectrum; a mutability along a line of increasing and diminishing love. This is no liminal space that defines them, but a razorblade of separation akin to that which slices, irreversible, between the sacred and the profane, where ‘the two orders jealously patrol their own boundaries to prevent the contamination of one by the other’ (Jencks 2003).

The painting was first exhibited in Sensation, the Royal Academy’s exhibition of work by ‘young British Artists’ from the Saatchi collection, its attempt to distil the zeitgeist of ‘Brit Art’ in 1997. Responses were swift and predictable. The painting was defaced with eggs and ink: the destruction of this feared and reviled image an echo of iconoclastic belief that evil could enter in through the eyes. A fever of commentary transcended international borders. ‘…Hindley’s evil face inspired sick artist Marcus Harvey to paint her face using thousands of children’s handprints’ (Daily Star 1997). CNN covered the events in their ‘World News’, reporting the comments of David Lee, editor of Art Review, ‘…artists who are working today seem to be shocking deliberately… subjects… which to many ordinary people are extremely offensive’, (CNN 1997). Controversies of revulsion and offence have persisted. In 2008 Downing Street and the Mayor of London condemned the use of footage from Sensation in which Myra could be seen, at a London 2012 Olympics promotional event in Beijing: a spokesman for Boris Johnson describing the mayor as ‘deeply disturbed’ (BBC 6 o’clock news 2008). Even political divisions erode in a climate of collective outrage, the right-wing ‘Red Tops’ articulating the same disgust as the Socialist Workers Party, whose review of Sensation suggested a conspiracy between the Academy, Harvey, and the media bourgeoisie to use deliberate and gratuitous offence in order to ensure the commercial success of the exhibition (International Socialism, Issue 79, 1998).

Harvey’s perceived sacrilege cannot simply be in reproducing ‘the evil face’, which circulates serpentine both in the ether and on the page. His real crime is in foregrounding those aspects of its condensation that contain its talismanic malediction: the violated body. The explicit display of the myriad hands, split off, severed from the fetishized ideal of untouched innocence, a sacred effigy of purity, is a technique that inserts these relics into the flesh of Myra, fusing the physicality of predator and prey: it is the exposure of a terrible intimacy that is the taboo. In this communion, the bringing together of hands insists we see ourselves, and admit to a disturbing unconscious witness ‘unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden…’ (The Book of Common Prayer 1662 rite). The ability of this image to shock speaks as much of our own fascination with degrees of desecration as it does of Hindley’s crime: an almost eroticised hierarchy of odium in which the death of a child is unsurpassed. Hindley is a star on the stage of the ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ (Jencks 2003), her performances eliciting a frisson of horror to which we would rather not own.

left: Piss Christ, Andres Serrano; right:

left: Piss Christ, Andres Serrano 1987; right: The Isenheim Altarpiece (detail), Grunewald, 1516.

Whose is this horrifying face, / This putrid flesh, discoloured, flayed, / Fed on by flies, scorched by the sun? From ‘Ecce Homo’. David Gascoyne (1916 – 2001)

‘…she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head.’ Luke 7:44, KJV

Preeminent in the canon of controversy is Piss Christ, a 1987 work by the artist Andres Serrano. The photograph, a Cibachrome print, shows us a mass-produced plastic statuette of Christ on the cross, immersed in what we are told is the artist’s own urine. The work ticks all the boxes of outrage in that it has the potential to offend religious faith, break constitutional law, evoke visceral disgust, cause emotional distress, disrupt societal norms, and contravene conservative concepts of taste and aesthetics in its use of piss; and, perhaps worst of all, use public funding to commit these sins. Millions of taxpayers are rightfully incensed that their hard-earned dollars were used to honor and support Serrano’s work’, (Senator Alphonse D’Amato 1989). Piss Christ was immediately condemned as blasphemous [3], Serrano and others associated with its display receiving death threats and hate mail. Its potency continues to resonate, prints of Piss Christ being vandalised in 1989, 1997 and 2011, with acres of cyberspace intoning an ongoing liturgy of condemnation. So much has been written about Piss Christ since its first unveiling, both for and against, by writers both gifted and crude, that it might seem foolish to revisit it here. It is worth doing so both for its richness as a totemic image in its own right, and in that it embodies such richly nuanced possibilities of transgression and offence.

In reproduction, the image gives little indication as to the size of the crucifixion, and this is how most of us, objectors included, will know it. Like Myra, it reproduces well: occupying its allotted space on press and web page alike with simple bold tones, complex meaning distilled into unitary symbol, its perceived transgression foregrounded in a saturation of gilded lights. In the flesh, at about five feet high, its dimensions bestow a singular and monumental gravity to what is, in actuality, a small plastic statuette. The urine too, with its golden luminescence, plays its part in this process, its burnished depths creating a migratory ‘heiligenschein’ that embraces the synthetic Christ in an organic softness: ‘a deep rosy glow that is both ominous and glorious’, (Lucy Lippard. Art in America, April 1990). Curiously, Piss Christ’s objectors rarely comment on its aesthetics – the closest allusions to its visual merits referring rather to Serrano’s general artistic competency: ‘Serrano is not an artist. He is a jerk.’ (Senator Jesse Helms, 1989). The knowledge that the handprints of Myra are those of children is visually apparent, but the identification of the liquid shroud of Piss Christ as urine, is dependent upon the word. The outrage and distress caused by the image occur because it is said that the fluid is urine, and because such an utterance seems to transcend the physical existence of the work: those who pass judgment do not measure their insult by that which they actually see.

The word ‘blasphemous’ comes to us from the Greek: blapsis = evil + phēmē = speech. To be blasphemous is to speak evil. Within the institutional structures of faith the malevolent utterance is defined in relation to that which is sacred, and in some interpretations, will constitute a sin that is beyond redemption, ‘… the blasphemy against the spirit shall not be forgiven. If any reader of these lines commits this sin, he can never be saved. He will never have a second chance … entrance to heaven is eternally closed to him …’, (Palmer, The Holy Spirit, 1971, cited in Cole, Engaging With The Holy Spirit 2007). Much of the orthodoxy that discusses the nature of blasphemy reflects the essence of Palmer’s comment, locating harm and injury within the offender, but from the perspective of Serrano’s accusers, the sin pollutes blasphemed and blasphemer alike, the determining diametric beliefs slicing their intersections ‘like a guillotine, just as heavy, just as light,’ (Kafka, The Diaries 1910 – 13). The act of blasphemy, whether spoken, thought, or enacted, is defined as expressing or involving impiousness or gross irreverence towards God and the sacred. In terms of this abhorrence then, what is Serrano’s offence? Injury to God, injury to the image of Christ, injury to the Church, injury to individual Christians, or injury to the soul of Serrano himself?

Serrano has said that his photograph is a critique of the ‘billion-dollar Christ-for-profit industry’ and a ‘condemnation of those who abuse the teachings of Christ for their own ignoble ends’ (Guardian Online, 18 April 2011). His letter to the ‘National Endowments for the Arts’, the US funding body from which Serrano received a grant towards the production of Piss Christ, includes more emotional and personalized phrases: ‘the photograph, and the title itself, are ambiguously provocative but certainly not blasphemous… My Catholic upbringing informs this work which helps me to redefine and personalize my relationship with God. My use of such bodily fluids as blood and urine in this context is parallel to Catholicism’s obsession with “the body and blood of Christ.” It is precisely in the exploration and juxtaposition of these symbols from which Christianity draws it strength’, (cited in Casey, [4] 2000). Serrano has also commented that, ‘It’s often been said that the only really offensive thing about Piss Christ, if you can call it offensive since I didn’t mean to offend, is the title itself. It’s not the image’ (Boston University Online 2007). Both visually and linguistically, it seems that the perceived transgression occurs at the point where the Piss meets the Christ, at the ‘idir eathera’ [5], the intangible potent boundary, the liminal margin that is the womb of transformation and mutability: the properties of piss positioned by the offended as polluting, all of its other possible uses, perhaps as that which assists in the purification of the body, put from sight.

That which is sacred is set apart, and must be protected from the baseness of the world. It is inviolable: no stain must be made upon it, no infection corrupt its purity. It is regarded with reverence and awe, patrolled and guarded by faiths and pieties, cultures and communities both orthodox and heterodox from defilement and acts of vitiation. Fear of such defilement can be emotionally real, those committing such acts seen to be threatening community, society, and even the fate of the whole world. ‘The polluting person is always in the wrong. He has developed some wrong condition or simply crossed some line which should not have been crossed, and this displacement unleashes danger…’ (Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, 1966).  In the act of setting apart we create category, and in creating category we create order: a comforting and collective identity in which we can sublimate the confusion of our contradictions and uncertainties. Its attendant rituals, both sacred and secular, are points of reference that secure our shaky selves. Freud articulates these fears as almost atavistic, arguing that ‘our collocation ‘holy dread’ would often coincide in meaning with ‘taboo’’ (Totem and Taboo 1950). Such fears can, of course, also symptomize a justification of self-righteous grandiosity, a masquerade of societal protection, constructed by those who dominate as a means of protecting a preferential order – those fears passed on to those whom they control, who will experience such dreads in states of disturbed authenticity. In Purity and Danger, Douglas brilliantly puts the proposition that whilst dirt is disorder, dirt is also subjective. Digging shit into the garden is good, grinding shit into the carpet is not: we may subtly reframe the world and all things in it as it suits: ‘dirt is matter out of place’. Whether fears be genuine or contrived, consciously or unconsciously so, the sacred object and the rituals and words that attempt to secure the borders of the sacred, will often represent the protection of something else entirely.

We define our ‘self’, in part, in terms of the other, and the greater the fragility of that part of self that is truly our own, the more concrete and absolute must the other become. At the extremes of this paradigm, positioning the other as something akin to ‘… a monster circus [of] … ‘whores’, ‘adulterers’, ‘queers’, dykes’…’ (Jencks 2003) bestows upon us, and us only, the qualities of righteousness, worthiness, certainty, morality, and cleanliness of heart and soul; we civilize ourselves amidst a sea of barbarity. If we are amongst those who subscribe to a certain kind of religious fundamentalism [6], only we are worthy, only we shall be saved. The Westboro Baptist Church [7], based in Topeka, Kansas, is the home of the ‘God Hates Fags’ movement. Visiting its website, GodHatesFags.com, one could until recently buy t-shirts emblazoned with this slogan. The t-shirts could be seen modeled by children of both sexes, some seemingly no more than three years old, their bodies subsumed by a display of words whose meaning they could surely not comprehend, their garments hanging from them like skins flayed from an alien beast. On the 21st of February of this year it was reported that Anonymous, an activist hacker group, had taken down the main website of the church together with their other sites, including the bluntly prosaic JewsKilledJesus.com, PriestsRapeBoys.com, AmericansDoomed.com, GodHatesAmerica.com, and GodHatesTheWorld.com. It seems that the sense of self and order to be maintained by the Westboro Baptists is defined by fear and hatred, not just of the usual suspects, but also of other Christians, of their country, and of the whole world. If ‘language is the house of Being’ (Heidegger 1947), then their house offers mean lodgings; the perceived territory of their righteousness shrunk to a suffocating microcosm of heavy, dark matter. Turning their professed faith on its head, the circumference of their hatred is everywhere; the centre of their love is nowhere [8]. The example of the Westboro Baptist Church is in some senses too heightened, their interpretation of their faith paranoid and inverted: a clowning caricature of piety. In addition to such hateful activities as picketing the funerals of those who have died of AIDS/HIV related conditions, or been murdered because of their sexuality, they once protested outside a shop that sold Swedish vacuum cleaners on the grounds that to sell such things is to support Sweden’s tolerance of homosexuality, an act so ridiculous that they unintentionally mock their own malevolent hubris. But many of those who protest their outrage against Piss Christ are of much more moderate temper, and often their sense of injury seems real. The problem is the piss. Serrano has made many other works that bring together religious artifacts and bodily fluids, but it is only with the piss that the shit hits the fan. Bodily waste is the ultimate taboo, dirt ‘nonpareil’, its improper appearance and placement imbued with shame, its use as a weapon the ultimate humiliation. We piss ourselves, we shit ourselves; we piss on things, we treat things like shit. The paradox embedded in the controversy is this: the fulcrum about which Christianity turns, is God made flesh; but flesh is a messy business.

The crucifix, the sacred object that must not be dirtied by the reality of the body and of the world, is in fact an object of ignominy, associated with the most abject of deaths. Early Christians rarely used the crucifix as symbol, the actuality of its function too raw in their minds, too real in their lives. Piss Christ’s objectors have cleaned up the cross, refashioned it in gold, alabaster and plastic, and drawn the drops of blood as sharp and as glittering as precious stones, constructing a symbol almost unseen in its undisrupted familiarity; the confrontational aspects of the meaning of the sacraments of bread and wine are subsumed within the disinfected aesthetic of hygiene; they are safe for us to swallow. This is not to suggest that the only authenticity in Christian artistic experience is to be sat traumatised before the relentlessly didactic grotesqueries of works such as Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, nor that the melancholic calm and meditative beauty of, for example, Gavin Bryars’ composition Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1975), or Antonello da Messina’s painted wood panel Crucifixion (1475) are to be dismissed – rather that a fertile plurality of sensibilities in any arena is surely preferable to the barren deadness of fundamental certainty. ‘The more we let each voice sing out with its own true tone, the richer will be the diversity of the chant in unison’. (Angelus Silesius 1624 – 1677).

Reporting in the Guardian on the destruction of a print of Piss Christ in France in the spring of this year, Jonathon Jones [9] commented that ‘…[it]… can be legitimately compared to the horrible sores and green pus on the body of Grunewald’s Christ in the Isenheim altarpiece…’ (Guardian Online, 18 April 2011), a statement preceded by Casey who argued that, ‘The claim that Piss Christ is offensive to Christians seems to suggest, incorrectly I believe, that Piss Christ has neither place nor precedent within the Christian tradition.’ The Isenheim Altarpiece (1516) is both extraordinary in its brilliance and complexity as an image, and ordinary, in that its explicit physicality was never at odds with Christian philosophies of its time. The centre panel of ‘the first view’, the Christ on the cross, has no imposed external nobility that transcends the agony and terror of torture and death. There is no otherworldly luminescence, no reassuring skyward gaze to soften the grimness of the scene. The crown of thorns eschews an elegant circularity and instead, a tangled weight of briars pulls the head down onto the chest; eyes closed, mouth sere, opened in a gape that ambiguously straddles the rictus and the scream. It is a body at the limits of pain and exhaustion, hovering in the margins of life and death, flesh withered and drained as if already in decay, vital fluids crusting and congealing on a skin so scourged and suppurated, it might have been turned inside out. It is disorder. It is chaos. It is unclean. In the pieta of the under panel the Christ, now dead, is gone green, the sheen of corruption already upon him. Held in the arms of his mother, his stiffened face receives the liquid of her tears, the stuff of her flesh once more comingling with his. The piece was painted for the Monastery of St Anthony at Isenheim, whose monks cared for and treated those suffering from the plague and from diseases such as ergotism, whose symptoms manifest in ravages of the skin. These scorch marks of suffering, this ‘death with no disguise’ (Jones 2007), would have resonated with all who stood before it.

The corporal realities of the Passion were a recurring theme within the writings of early Christian mystics, the bodily nature of Christ sometimes positioned as so fluid and permeable that it was often identified with the feminine. This theme is often posited as the preserve of the female mystics, but it had also been embraced by men such as St Francis of Assisi and St Bernard, ‘eliciting in themselves and their fellows the tender and passionate feelings traditionally associated with women’ (Spearing [10] 1998). Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-1416), who believed that all sin was redeemable (by implication refuting the possibility of an ultimate and unpardonable blasphemy), and that God contains no wrath, but is entirely love, writes in Revelations of Divine Love, an account of her mystical visions, that ‘…our Saviour is our true mother in whom we are eternally born and by whom we shall always be enclosed’, and that he ‘…dressed himself in our poor flesh to do the service and duties of motherhood in every way’, even referring to the Passion as ‘labour’. Indeed, the cast of characters depicted within the altarpiece are out of step with Gospel chronology, and are drawn instead from the writings of Saint Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373), describing her own mystical experiences. ‘Kenosis’, which is defined as ‘Christ’s voluntary renunciation of certain divine attributes, in order to identify himself with mankind’, is embedded in Christianity’s theological core. To ‘identify’ with a thing one must know the being of that thing before one ceases to be: one must live before one can die. The sacrifice is not just in the giving up of life, but also in the knowing of what it is to live, to be in the flesh. Like blasphemy, kenosis is a word that comes to us from the Greek: an emptying, from kenos empty. We cannot sustain ourselves without the sticky stuff of life, the food we eat, the water we drink, the blood we leak and the milk we express; the fluids of reproduction and the piss and the shit that clean us and empty the waste and the poisons from our bodies. Neither can we truly contemplate the experience of death without acknowledging a body in flux, with fluid and substance both ennobled and base flowing and seeping from ruptures natural and ruptures forced. ‘I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels’, (Psalm 22:14).

In his defence of Piss Christ, Casey asks the question ‘To whom do religious symbols belong and who has the authority to prescribe the manner in which they are used?’ This is a question that can be asked about all that is shielded under the aegis of taboo. Currently, the sacred effigy of ‘childhood innocence’ (perhaps as hysterically and hypocritically invigilated today as it was in Victorian England) is the god by whom Harvey’s Myra and such works as Nan Goldin’s photographs of children are judged. In 2007 Goldin’s photograph Klara And Edda Belly-Dancing was investigated by the Crown Prosecution Services for possible breach of child pornography laws, but was judged not to be indecent. In a fit of paranoiac hysteria, it was the exhibiting gallery itself, the Baltic in Gateshead, who had called in the police. In his discussion of the construct of the ‘Apollonian’ infant, (Childhood 1996), Chris Jencks describes the image of ‘the heir to the sunshine and the light… angelic, innocent… a natural goodness and a clarity of vision that we might idolize or even worship’. The curious, conflicted child, the child of sensual appetites, the ‘beast in the nursery’ (Adam Phillips 1998), threatens to tear down the effigy of purity and must be cast out as profane, placed outside of the temple. Asked about the concept of freedom of speech, and about ‘artistic freedom’, Serrano has said that ‘It’s related. Freedom of speech is a double-edged sword. You can say what you want, but you might be punished for it. I think that’s the bottom line. If you’re willing to take the risk and you feel strongly about it, you need to do what you have to do. In my case, I’ve always felt like what I’ve done, what I do, it comes natural to me, so I’m not trying to be something else.’

There are lines that, if crossed, may cause genuine offence and distress, might even be what we name as ‘wicked’, and to seek to cause shock and sensation for its own sake is at best, crass. But to draw the lines of right and wrong, of sacred and profane purely on the grounds of fear, or hatred, or the proving of ones own moral superiority and other self interest, is to step into the frozen annihilatory wastes of the Westboro Baptist Church, the world that is ‘eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my beloved good and evil’, (Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 1901). Perhaps there is no answer to the question of rights and freedoms in relation to creative practice. We must acknowledge that every one of us must balance the blessings of reflective wonder with the burdens of responsibility, and that when our creative convictions prepare to cross a line, we must accept the possibility that we may be wrong. In art, as in all things, courage fortified with humility might serve us better than the opaque reassurances of certainty. Let us embrace a belief in a creative trinity; that of conscience, thought, and risk.

‘The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.’ Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

Emma Bolland 2011



[1] As write I listen to the radio. Vincent Tabak has been found guilty. Facts that could not be made public prior the verdict are now released. Tabak possessed images of women marked, bound, and posed in death in the same ways as Joanna. And now, the day after, I walk to the newsagents and see the media salaciously and graphically describe those images that shaped the tableau of his crime.

[2] It was only later in the interviewing process that Sutcliffe changed his reasoning, declaring that God was instructing him to kill prostitutes. Both ‘explanations’ essentially place himself at the centre, as victim, abnegating responsibility to a perverse re-imagining of the sacred and the profane.

[3] The crime of blasphemy exists (in those countries where it exists at all) in variable legal definitions. In the UK the blasphemy laws (which applied only to the Christian faith) were repealed in 1998, and replaced by a new category of ‘Racially Aggravated Offences’, amended in 2001 to ‘Racially or Religiously Aggravated Offences’, which includes the sub-categories of assault, criminal damage, public order offences, and harassment; all terms which locate harm as external to the blasphemer.

[4] I came across Casey’s paper after most of this text and its ideas were drafted, and some of the concepts and references I had used are ones that he also uses.   His writing has proved invaluable in refining and enriching my thoughts. The full text, SACRIFICE, PISS CHRIST, AND LIBERAL EXCESS, was first published in Law, Text, and Culture. (June, 2000), or can be found online as Piss Christ: A Theological Defense.

[5] Idir Eathera: Old Celtic: a term describing a boundary as neither one place nor another, but the space between the two, a temporal or transformative space.

[6] This exclusivity is not the preserve of the religious. At the extreme end of what might be described as fundamental atheism, there are those that would deny the capacity for rational or empirical thought in those who subscribe to any form of spiritual life.

[7] The WBC is not affiliated with any known Baptist conventions or associations. The church describes itself as following Primitive Baptist and Calvinist principles, but mainstream Primitive Baptists reject the WBC and its minister. Its activities include picketing the funerals of gay victims of murder, gay bashing or people who have died from complications relating to AIDS/HIV. On January 15, 2006, Westboro members protested at a memorial for victims of the 2006 Sago Mining Disaster, claiming that the mining accident was God’s revenge against America for its tolerance of homosexuality.

[8] ‘God is a sphere whose centre is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere’. (Anonymous, The Book of the Twenty-four Philosophers, 12th Century).

[9] Jones’ succinct and erudite 2007 monograph juxtaposing the iconography of the altarpiece with a Christmas card aesthetic’ can be found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2007/dec/12/art

[10] A.C Spearling, in his introduction to Revelations of Divine Love, points out that Julian’s emphasis on the feminine posed no difficulties for contemporary Church Orthodoxy. Rather it was statements such as ‘all shall be saved’, in which she intimates that Judaism, Palmer’s ‘denial of Christ’, was not the unpardonable sin that resulted in damnation, that put her at risk of heresy.