Andres Serrano said he did not intend his 1987 photograph of a crucifix submerged in his own urine to offend; indeed, when it was first displayed in galleries, no one protested. But in 1989, after Piss Christ was exhibited in Virginia, it attracted the attention of an outspoken pastor and, soon after, of Congress. Angry that Serrano had received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Senators Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms helped pass a law requiring the NEA to consider “general standards of decency” in awarding grants. The uproar turned Piss Christ into one of the key fronts in the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, alongside the work of Serrano’s fellow NEA recipient Robert Mapplethorpe, and divided a nation over the question of whether the government had the right to censor art.
The battle over Piss Christ has left a dual legacy. The campaign to place the picture outside the boundaries of acceptable art contributed to its fame, inspiring other artists to push limits even further. But those provocateurs are less likely to do so with help from the government: the decency-standards law passed because of Piss Christ was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1998.
Hear U.S. Senator Jesse Helms condemn Andreas Serrano's photograph
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