Image and Meaning

The Guardian reports on an attack on Andres Serrano’s controversial image “Immersion (Piss Christ)” at the weekend in Paris. Since its creation in 1987 the image has attracted the ire of Christians around the world who see it as a piece of risible blasphemy, and its appearance in Paris has continued this, with protests, death threats and an eventual physical attack on the piece itself.

The photograph is of a crucifix floating in a jar of the artists urine.

The artists says it is a:

criticism of the “billion-dollar Christ-for-profit industry” and a “condemnation of those who abuse the teachings of Christ for their own ignoble ends”

Which is a noble cause, but those who object to it presumably don’t see it as such a critique but as an attack on their God.

It occurred to me however that what these people are actually angry about is not the image itself, but the idea of the image. Imagine the photograph was called “Immersion (Christ)” and the artist never revealed how he had created it. Would it get near as much attention? I think its a beautiful image, and I wonder if people never knew anything about it, would they too see the beauty? I’m not offended by it, but I can see why people are offended by it, but are they offended by the image or how the image was created?

In the classic “Ways of Seeing” John Berger commented

The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. […] The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe

Berger pointed towards Magritte’s The Key of Dreams to highlight this “always-present gap between words and seeing”

Later on in the same essay Berger presents us with “Wheatfield with Crows by Vincent Van Gogh”

And then presents it again with text below.

This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself

And states:

It is hard to define exactly how the words have changed the image but undoubtedly they have. The image now illustrates the sentence.

Any initial attraction or appeal Piss Christ might have for those who are offended by it is evaporated once they know about what it is. The image now illustrates the event.

It reminded me of the furore over the Muhammed cartoons controversy. What if those images had been printed with no captions? Do they become offensive at the point you know they were meant to be something? Is the now famous image of Muhammed with a bomb in his turban only offensive because the author said it was Muhammed. What if they had never said that? The image loses all power.


Magritte famously painted a picture of a pipe with the caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe)

The point being that it is not a pipe, it is a picture of a pipe. Often we mistake the word or the sign for the thing itself. We then become obsessed with the sign and not the real thing. As Alan Watts said:

You don’t eat the menu


But this is kind of digressing. Of course as people we see the world then immediately label it. Most of us never see the world clearly as it is without filtering it through the prism of our egos, which is influenced by culture, upbringing, language etc. But this is brought into sharp focus by something like Piss Christ. So much of our relationship to it comes from what we know and think about it, not what we see.

Finally, on the point of attacking the image, which is now “beyond repair”, surely in the modern world of mass production and Warholian art we can simply reproduce it? Run off another one? And again, by destroying the image they are not destroying what is actually offensive which is the idea. And once the idea is out there, how can you destroy that?