Taboo Icons: The Bodily Photography of Andres Serrano
Keywords:photography, icon, Culture Wars, medieval, Christianity
Andres Serrano’s photography is often dismissed as being shocking for the sake of being shocking. His infamous photograph Piss Christ (1987) is the oft-cited example at the center of the National Endowment for the Arts controversies during the Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s. I return to Piss Christ as a way to expand the interpretative scope of Serrano’s early photographs, which I call “taboo icons” because of their ambiguity and ability to crisscross symbolic boundaries in the unstable space between sacred and profane, thus making his images both powerful and potentially dangerous. Building upon previous scholarship that draws connections between modern and early modern aesthetic practices, I look to the material practices of Christianity in medieval Europe characterized by a sophisticated visual culture that mixed both the physical and the spiritual. The intensifying rejection and reverence of matter resulted in divergent responses, yet the contradictory nature of matter remained central to the ideological beliefs of Christianity where the doctrines of Creation, Incarnation, and Resurrection are at its core. Serrano’s visceral photographs are emphatically material and can productively be read vis-à-vis medieval visual culture. In doing so, this reading changes the narrow perception of Serrano’s early photographs and provides an alternative understanding of his artistic project that reinserts religion into contemporary American art discourse.
How to Cite
Authors who publish with this journal agree to the following terms:
- The Author retains copyright in the Work, where the term “Work” shall include all digital objects that may result in subsequent electronic publication or distribution.
- Upon acceptance of the Work, the author shall grant to the Publisher the right of first publication of the Work.
- The Author shall grant to the Publisher and its agents the nonexclusive perpetual right and license to publish, archive, and make accessible the Work in whole or in part in all forms of media now or hereafter known under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License or its equivalent, which, for the avoidance of doubt, allows others to copy, distribute, and transmit the Work under the following conditions:
- Attribution—other users must attribute the Work in the manner specified by the author as indicated on the journal Web site;
- The Author is able to enter into separate, additional contractual arrangements for the nonexclusive distribution of the journal's published version of the Work (e.g., post it to an institutional repository or publish it in a book), as long as there is provided in the document an acknowledgement of its initial publication in this journal.
- Authors are permitted and encouraged to post online a prepublication manuscript (but not the Publisher’s final formatted PDF version of the Work) in institutional repositories or on their Websites prior to and during the submission process, as it can lead to productive exchanges, as well as earlier and greater citation of published work. Any such posting made before acceptance and publication of the Work shall be updated upon publication to include a reference to the Publisher-assigned DOI (Digital Object Identifier) and a link to the online abstract for the final published Work in the Journal.
- Upon Publisher’s request, the Author agrees to furnish promptly to Publisher, at the Author’s own expense, written evidence of the permissions, licenses, and consents for use of third-party material included within the Work, except as determined by Publisher to be covered by the principles of Fair Use.
- The Author represents and warrants that:
- the Work is the Author’s original work;
- the Author has not transferred, and will not transfer, exclusive rights in the Work to any third party;
- the Work is not pending review or under consideration by another publisher;
- the Work has not previously been published;
- the Work contains no misrepresentation or infringement of the Work or property of other authors or third parties; and
- the Work contains no libel, invasion of privacy, or other unlawful matter.
- The Author agrees to indemnify and hold Publisher harmless from Author’s breach of the representations and warranties contained in Paragraph 6 above, as well as any claim or proceeding relating to Publisher’s use and publication of any content contained in the Work, including third-party content.
Revised 7/16/2018. Revision Description: Removed outdated link.