I am a blasphemer. Even now, some forty-five years after tossing the last vestiges of my Catholic indoctrination into the dustbin of childhood beliefs, this is still an oddly unsettling thing to write. Wikipedia describes blasphemy as “the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence to a deity, to religious or holy persons or sacred things, or toward something considered sacred or inviolable.” I didn’t set out to be a blasphemer, but I’ve done all these things more than once.
No less an authority than Thomas Aquinas said that “blasphemy, which is a sin committed directly against God, is more grave than murder, which is a sin against one’s neighbor.” Being, as I am, something of a serial blasphemer, that makes me sort of a Jeffrey Dahmer of blasphemy. In an earlier century, I’d be headed for a date with the pear of anguish. Even today, there are places on the globe where my blasphemous behavior would get me stoned, beheaded, or otherwise inconvenienced. But can a person really be guilty of blasphemy without belief in the object of contempt? When the stones start flying, does it matter? For practical purposes, blasphemy is measured by its affront to believers.
The Medium Is the Message
The primary vehicle of my particular blasphemy is art. I’ve been a practicing artist for thirty-seven years. I’m also an art educator and critic. Though the majority of my artistic production is not blasphemous or even related to religion, more than a few works fit the description, depending of course on who is assessing them. Blasphemy, like so many things in life, is in the eye of the beholder. In the art world, where ambiguity of intent pervades, one person’s blasphemy might be another person’s piety.
When I first saw the photographic art of Andres Serrano in the early eighties, it didn’t strike me as blasphemous. There were references to Christianity—a woman wearing a head veil and holding a fish, for instance—but nothing scandalous. Later, when I initially glimpsed Serrano’s most infamous work, the one that briefly made him a household name, I didn’t think much about it at all. Without reading the label, Piss Christ appears to be a large impressionistic crucifixion in saturated red, orange, and yellow hues. The title figure emits a radiant glow suggesting spirituality. In 1989, when politicians anointed the work Exhibit A in their crusade to end government arts funding, the most common media description of the photograph was “a plastic crucifix in a jar of urine.” This description is imprecise—Serrano used a large tank, not visible in the photo—and derisive. Worse, it simply didn’t do the work justice. For many years, I’ve shown the photograph to high school and college students without revealing the critical background information. Their reaction is overwhelmingly positive. Students often speak in reverent terms of the photograph’s symbolic meaning and sacred tone.
At the time Piss Christ was made, Serrano had been employing this urine immersion technique for a series of similar works using familiar historical subjects. There’s one with The Discobolus (The Discus Thrower) and another with Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker; there’s a bust of Dante and many others. It makes sense then that the series would include Christian themes common to Western art. The medium and title are provocative, of course, but being provocative is the business of art. It was not lost on me that Serrano’s provocation contributed to his success. As an artist and critic, I view such work with an open mind, but I understand why some people find it blasphemous. It is in the eye of the beholder.
The Road to Blasphemy
This brings me back to my own work and how I became a blasphemer. I was raised Catholic. I went to a Catholic elementary school where I attended Mass every day before class. Religious instruction was integrated into the curriculum; I was exposed to religious imagery in church, on school walls, in my catechism, and on the holy cards the nuns gave out as rewards for good behavior. This instilled in me an early interest in Catholic iconography.
I suppose you could say I was also conflicted. I wanted to believe; I did believe on an emotional level, but a lot of what I learned in religious instruction was at odds with my inherent sense of reason, which was already pretty well-developed. During Father Knauber’s intermittent visits to our classroom, the parish priest would administer theology training, and I sometimes asked questions related to what I perceived to be inconsistencies in Church dogma. To some, this too is blasphemy. As time went on, I gradually redefined my personal belief system to bring it into alignment with the physical world I knew through science and reason.
By age twenty, I was an atheist.
Ten years later, I had secured a teaching job and was pursuing an art career. My early paintings and drawings dealt with technology and science. Religion was not a focus, but it periodically crept into my work.
A drawing from 1984 depicts a person holding a circular silicone chip wafer a lot like a priest raising the Eucharist (Inspection of Silicone Wafer). I had left Catholicism, but Catholicism had not left me. A 1986 work titled Father Knauber Draws a Soul is an expressionistic memory of a time when he explained to our class how souls, grace, and sin work, all through a chalkboard drawing. It was an elegant visual metaphor of an intangible concept, which I irreverently compare in my painting to using X-ray specs. Subsequently, I painted Limbo Babies, based on a Catholic concept whereby people who were never baptized (especially infants) were thought to go to a place that was not quite heaven but not hell. This always struck me as one of the more absurd theological principles. In the painting, third-world children are being indoctrinated into Catholicism. Categories of sin—original, mortal, and venial—are written on the chalkboard, as symbols of their indigenous beliefs fade. This work may have expressed contempt for a sacred belief, but, as it turns out, that was appropriate. Limbo was dropped from the Catholic canon in 2007.
The Shit Gets Real
It was 1988 when my blasphemous output kicked into high gear. The occasion was an annual art event known as the Artists & Models Affair, where artists create installations or stage performances in a nightclub atmosphere. This was at the height of the televangelist scandals of Jim and Tammy Faye Baker and Jimmy Swaggart, not long after James Randi exposed faith-healer Peter Popoff as a fraud. Jim Bakker had been accused of rape, and his Heritage USA theme park was embroiled in fraud charges. Jimmy Swaggart was caught in a sex scandal involving a prostitute and famously cried on television. Accusations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests were just beginning to receive wide publicity.
My art installations are typically thinly veiled social commentaries that employ humor. For the Artists & Models Affair, I collaborated with two other artists, Mark Joyce and Chuck Agro. Subtlety is lost at this raucous event, so we opted to echo the atrocities of the religious community with broad and irreverent humor. We titled the installation—which occupied a large room—Heretic USA.
Heretic USA lampooned religious beliefs and transgressions in the most patently offensive way possible. Included was a Show Yer Tits confessional, in which women were invited to do just that. There was a toilet filled with “toxic waste holy water,” a huge-breasted Madonna, and a Wall-o-Miracles. The wall included a miraculous Crying St. Sebastian painting, in which the martyr was depicted wearing a comedian’s arrow-through-the-head. Liquid trickled from his eye, and viewers who got too close were squirted with a stream of “tears.” There was a Talk to God phone booth, comprising a Budweiser can and string “phone,” and a smiley-face Veil of Veronica.
If anyone was truly offended, no one complained. Heretic USA was unquestionably blasphemous, touching on every component of the Wikipedia definition. But it was not simply an act of hedonistic excess, nor were we merely venting personal spite. Provocation was the essential element and social parody the intent, a tactic dating back to Filippo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto and later honed by the Dadaists.
Religious commentators often complain that Christianity is under attack in America by pagans and secularists who dominate the art world. Artists who defend other belief systems, the argument goes, feel free to insult Jesus, God, and Christianity with impunity. Blaspheming Christianity is in vogue. I think there is truth to this. The reason is simple: the artists making the art, like the majority of American and European citizens, were raised Christian. Andres Serrano was. So was Holy Virgin Mary elephant-dung artist Chris Ofili. I was. We didn’t ask to be indoctrinated into an ancient belief system based on superstition and myth. But we were, and now Christianity is our religion to respond to or reject as forcefully as we see fit. We have no business or reason to attack or critique other religions.
To your credit, you don’t stone us anymore. Thanks for that.
To Bare Is Divine
In 2010, I again tapped into my interest in sacred art with the Divine Beauty project. This installation, comprising sixty-four framed paintings, filtered sacred iconography through the secular lens of contemporary social perceptions. I placed provocative fashion imagery from magazine advertisements in the context of religious narratives, producing a clash of ideas that threw both into question. At the time, our economy was undergoing an economic meltdown, partly due to rampant consumerism, which had long since replaced Western religion as the preferred path to personal fulfillment.
Fashion models are icons of the church of materialism, gazing out from billboards and magazines with rapture, anguish, and implied narratives. I find the fake heroic ethos and heavy-handed sexual inferences of these proselytizers of brand devotion alluring. Paintings from the Divine Beauty project retain many conventions of traditional religious art, balancing historical tropes against tossed-off commercial illustration. For instance, their homoerotic subtexts parallel those found in many historical religious works. There’s a lot of skin, mostly male skin.
The series was exhibited as part of the Beyond/In Western New York biennial, for which I built a large gallery within a warehouse, mimicking the cross-shaped architectural footprint of cathedrals. The space was dark, and the many works were pin-lighted, generating a sense of baroque excess and extravagance. The scent of frankincense filled the air.
While the paintings and installation are arguably blasphemous (from both religious and capitalist viewpoints), certain works stand out for their irreligious fervor. One is The Annunciation, a popular theme in Western art. A sober reading of the biblical account of Mary’s “immaculate conception” depicts a girl of about fourteen, impregnated by God without consent while she is unconscious. Later, God sends an angel to give her the news. My version depicts a nude, tattooed woman with one wrist handcuffed (the other cuff open) enjoying a post coital cigarette. An arm enters the frame from the right with its hand in the benediction position. A gold pattern in the background references the Roman Goddess Danaë, whose story parallels Mary’s (The Annunciation).
Another work of note is Skeptical Tom, an obvious riff on a familiar New Testament story. Surprisingly few people make the connection, even though one of the figures is drawn directly from Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (Doubting Thomas). In my version, Jesus is a pretty blond boy. (The homoeroticism of the original work is even more overt.) Inherent in my depiction is the idea that Jesus is largely a fictional character who is continuously reinterpreted. The series also includes Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with the Gospels’ authors as sunglass models and a wall-size altarpiece with a central panel depicting the Last Judgment, or as I call it, the Summative Assessment. Underwear models stand in as Adam and Eve.
Are these works blasphemous? Certainly they are irreverent. But as I completed the series, a New York City “Italian Catholic” art collector commissioned an altarpiece in the style of the series. The finished work, titled The Adoration of the Virgin: Wearing Vera Wang, depicts eighteen saints: servants of God and “Blessed” people chosen by the collector. At its center is Mary, loosely based on Mexico’s Our Lady of Guadalupe. In the original, an angel below Mary holds up the hem of her dress, but here he is a man who might be sneaking a peek at the source of his savior. The corners of the fourteen-carat gold-leaf frame portray high-end consumer products. There are two images above the main painting: a winged satellite and four Blackhawk helicopters. Are they the four archangels, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or just helicopters aiding America’s crusade for Middle-Eastern oil? Ambiguity. The collector was thrilled.
There’s no question that some of my work displays contempt and lack of reverence for religious or holy people and sacred things. That makes it blasphemous. But to my New York collector, it was just a different kind of veneration. One person’s blasphemy is another person’s piety. The world is full of complex and thorny topics that sometimes call for deference and at other times for contempt. As an atheist, my intent isn’t blasphemy, but it’s not my concern either. My interest is making art that forthrightly addresses compelling issues.