“Behind me, I heard a man asking:
“Where is God now?”
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
“Where is He? He is–He is hanging here on this gallows…”
-Elie Wiesel, Night
It is the 1980’s and the AIDS epidemic is in full swing. People are dying left and right as doctors struggle to understand the illness. Those with the virus are stigmatized, rejected, and looked down upon. The gay community, which already had been rejected by society, now find themselves being ignored or dehumanized. The government won’t recognize their suffering and the churches preach of AIDS being God’s wrath against the “homosexuals”.[i]
Unsurprisingly the Church’s disregard for those suffering caused a rift (and rightly so) that is still deeply felt today. While the gay community banned together to help each other in a powerful act of love[ii] the religion, who’s Bible teaches to help the needy, stayed far away.
Yet when looking at the art coming out of the 1980’s, from artists living amidst the AIDS epidemic or with the illness themselves a pattern emerges. There is a figure that appears in multiple pieces of their art. That figure is surprisingly Jesus Christ. The man who, on the surface, is part of a system that cast off those within the LGBT community. How does he appear? What does he represent? And why do these powerful, angry, and controversial artists find themselves returning to an image of one man’s crucifixion?
The image above seems simple enough. It is a photograph of a crucifix lying on the ground. The photo is aptly titled Christ taken by the infamous Robert Mapplethorpe in 1988. Mapplethorpe had previously stirred up controversy with his photographs of both perfectly lit pictures of beautiful flowers and perfectly lit pictures of men engaging in sadomasochistic sex acts. Mapplethorpe himself seemingly mocked Christ’s crucifixion earlier in his career.
Yet this is a much more humble photograph. Could it be linked to Mapplethorpe’s own HIV positive test results earlier that same year? One cannot be sure, but this is anything but sacrilegious. Mapplethorpe, who always struggled to make peace with his desire for spirituality and the fulfillment he found in exploring his dark sexual side[iii], places Christ against a gravel background. Christ’s face is extremely sorrowful as it shamefully looks down. A shamed Christ on gravel. Gravel on which people walk all over, step on, kick, and forget without a care in the world. This simple photograph gives the viewer a portrait of Jesus as a suffering nobody forsaken by the world he came to save.
Untitled (Genet) is a shocking and haunting portrait of suffering. Its setting is a cathedral in ruins. The small figures stumbling around on the floor seem lost. In the far left there are angels looking over them. Unfortunately there is also a man with a machine gun attempting to shoot them down. In the foreground a weakened man looks at the viewer as if asking for help. Above all this is Jesus Christ shooting heroin. This aspect of the image caused an uproar at the time of its release. Yet as with most shock art pieces the viewer must drop his or her initial repulsion and ask the deeper questions. When one meditates on this piece and thinks about the world in which artist David Wojnarowicz inhabited (drug addicted and AIDS inflicted lower east side New York) there is something powerful in this image of Christ. In Untitled (Genet) Jesus Christ is not participating in the suffering and addiction of the world, but taking it away by inflicting it upon himself. “ I thought about what I had been taught about Jesus Christ when I was young and how he took on the suffering of the world and I wanted to create a modern image of that” says Wojnarowicz.
Another image taken by Wojnarowicz called Untitled from the ant series (spirituality) shows Jesus on the ground, crucified, bloody, and covered in ants. Once again Christ is beaten down. The ants act as a symbol for humanities reckless drive to full fill its own needs at any costs, including ignoring suffering or death. For Christians this can be an unsettling image, but that is exactly Wojnarowicz’s point. It is supposed to fill one with horror and disgust. It is intended to be a confrontative and convicting image.
Finally there is Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (one of my personal favorite works of art). Although Serrano does not have AIDS the work was released in 1987 during the epidemic. There are multiple meanings to be found in this gorgeous photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine. It can be seen as what the church has done to Christianity during the AIDS crisis. Serrano was probably witness to the lack of compassion or outreach to those dying by the church. The photo can also be seen as a picture of Christ as fully human, body fluids and all, dying for humanity[iv].
The question remains as to why these three artists (and others) chose to feature Christ in their art despite being rejected by the religion that claims his name.
Susan Sontag reflects in her book AIDS and its Metaphors (1988) that AIDS “flushes out an identity that might have remained hidden from neighbors, jobmates, family, friends. It also confirms an identity and has been a creator of community as well as an experience that isolates the ill and exposes them to harassment and persecution.”[v] She goes on to writes about the deep fear that accompanies AIDS: “It is not suffering as such that is most deeply feared but suffering that degrades.”
Those infected with the virus can lose large amounts of weight, develop lesions that could become skin cancer, go blind, and experience severe diarrhea. Before doctors understood what was going on, before there was medication that prevented these symptoms, these were common among the infected. This allowed homophobia run rampant and gave people even more excuses to build up prejudices towards the gay community.
Christ when captured and placed on the cross was stripped bare. His friends abandoned him; he was physically afflicted, verbally abused, and degraded. He hung naked on a cross so the public could witness his dehumanization. In the Christian faith (which all of these artists mentioned above grew up in) Jesus Christ is God incarnate meaning that “God participated in the horror of the human condition and stood beside–eternally–the ugly, cursed, and god-forsaken.”[vi] Therefore God himself understands what it is like to suffer, to be cursed, and to be rejected. God himself was rejected by society and the religious institutions of that day.
Is it any wonder then that these artists turned towards Christ in their art? He was someone who didn’t reject them. The Church certainly did, but as evidenced by the Gospels descriptions of Jesus’ love for the oppressed, Christ did not. Christ loved them, humanized them, and suffered with and for them. According to Richard Beck the cross should also be a reminder of injustice and horror. The cross should remind one of those still suffering from AIDS in America and abroad, it should remind us of those lynched in the 60’s for standing up for civil rights, it should remind us of that fence where upon Matthew Sheppard was left to die.
In Jurgen Moltmen’s book The Crucified God he writes: “But for the crucified Christ, the principle of fellowship is fellowship with those who are different, and solidarity with those who have become alien and have been made different. Its power is not friendship, the love for what is similar and beautiful… but creative love for what is different, alien and ugly”.
Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz, Andres Serrano and others like Tim Miller or Joel Witkin grasped this concept. The paintings and pictures still create a stir to this day. [vii] Ultimately, I believe, it is the combination of raw anger, deep sadness, unapologetic candor and a spiritual identification with a crucified God that gives these unforgettable pieces of art their power.
[i] Which is utterly ridiculous because AIDS/HIV started in Africa affecting the heterosexual and homosexual alike.
[ii] To learn the stories of their courage watch the moving documentary We Were Here
[iii] “In order to fully understand the nature of Mapplethorpe’s Incarnational imagination it is necessary to acknowledge the degree to which the conflict between his physical desires and his spiritual aspirations defined his life.” -Heartney
[v] Sontag is responding to the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s, luckily a lot of the horror and stigma surrounding those with AIDS has decreased. Still the battle to fight AIDS stigma continues even in corporations such as Hershey’s.
Serrano Piss Christ destroyed by Christian protesters: http://gu.com/p/2zg3f/tw
Heartney, Eleanor. Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art. New York: Midmarch Arts, 2004. Print.
Sontag, Susan, and Susan Sontag. Illness as Metaphor ; AIDS and Its Metaphors. London: Penguin, 2002. Print.
Beck, Richard. “The Fence of Matthew Shepard.” Experimental Theology. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 July 2012. <http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/>.
Moltmann, Jürgen. The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. Print.