Crazy for Art: Piss Christ, Playboy Jesus

Some of you may have caught on to the play in the title of this post, and the allusion to shock art. The title is a play on Frank Schaeffer’s book entitled Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. And by the subtitle [of this post], I’m participating [with you] in the public discussions of Andres Serrano and José Saramago whose respective works have countered the conventional Christian views of Jesus Christ, to say the least.

I’ll close this post with some quotes by Schaeffer. But let me open it up a little more to say that he’s an elder cousin of mine. Well, we’re both missionary kids, who call the missionaries “Aunt” and “Uncle,” and he’s older than me. You probably would do well to hear a little more about my growing up, about my relationship with my own parents, and what I’d say if I’d written the book, Crazy for God. I wrote Franky at his blog to tell him how his fundamentalist parents helped me out of fundamentalist Christianity and how he should lighten up a little. Edith, his mom, is an MK herself. Her autobiography Mei Fuh: Memories from China lets children in. Her books Christianity is Jewish and Hidden Art and The Art of Life let adults out of the straightjackets of very narrow American views. Francis, Franky’s dad, is the coolest missionary there ever was, with his hippie hair and his and Edith’s Swiss commune and his willingness to listen to the Beatles and to ask How Should We Then Live and to be so open to talking about Art and the Bible, where he confesses to the world:

As evangelical Christians, we have tended to relegate art to the very fringe of life. The rest of human life we feel is more important. Despite our constant talk about the Lordship of Christ, we have narrowed its scope to a very small area of reality. We have misunderstood the concept of the Lordship of Christ over the whole of man and the whole of the universe and have not taken to us the riches that the Bible gives us for ourselves, for our lives, and for our culture.

Frank is a parent now, so I also wrote him to say that So am I and how my wife and I have named our son, Schaeffer, because of the influence of his family on us. (I think I mentioned that our son with my wife is mentioned at the end of David Hopkin’s essay here.)

There’s not a little irony in the fact that my son Schaeffer is a studio artist. He’s been watching with us the reality tv show on Bravo called, “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.” Recently, Serrano was on the show as a judge of the shock art produced, and Schaeffer [my son, not cousin Franky] gave us all a good insider’s perspective. As we all know, Serrano is famous (or is infamous depending on whether you’re a foreigner to the art world); he’s rather well known for his Piss Christ, the work of art which is a little plastic Catholic crucifix in a vile of his own urine. The shock to most Americans, political ones anyway, was that tax dollars went to help them participate in the creation of this shocking piece.

We’re talking about Saramago now because last week in Portugal, to honor the artist’s death last month, the Playboy Magazine editors there put Jesus on the cover and in a spread with partially nude women. (HT top biblioblogger Joel Watts at his blog called “The Church of Jesus Christ.” Joel had already announced, much earlier, what Saramago had said when mentioning his most recent book: “Speaking at the launch of his new book “Cain”, Jose Saramago , who won the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, said society would probably be better off without the Bible“). Schaeffer’s sister and I had already been talking about Saramago’s Jesus, his vision of the gospels of the bible, after I picked up and read his The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (off of Suzanne’s Bookshelf, so HT Suzanne McCarthy). She [my daughter] thought that, as shock art, Saramago’s Jesus Christ was pretty weak, but then we’d been talking about the pop-art-ness of Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code and how sex and religion, gratuitous stuff in isolation or in combination, can seem so cliché.

I have to say, I don’t like censorship, whether Franky’s (aka Frank’s) decision now to disparage his parents publicly in the name of autobiography or Andres’s decision to hide Christ in his piss or José’s decision to try to make society better without the Bible (unless it’s his own).

I do appreciate Franky’s complaining. While he was a horror film maker and was making documentaries with his dad, he wrote things like this (in Sham Pearls for Real Swine):

The Bible is not “nice.” The Bible’s tone is closer to that of the late Lenny Bruce than to that of the hushed piety of some ministers…. The Arts ask hard questions. Art incinerates polyester/velvet dreams of inner healing and cheap grace….

Now that he’s Frank, and has been writing novels and editorial pieces for HuffPo, he can explain (or complain) even more:

My memoir, Crazy for God, is an attempt to stop lying. I wanted to try and come clean. I wanted to admit my mistakes. I wanted to try to be the same person to everyone I met. You can be the world’s biggest hypocrite and still feel good about yourself. You can believe and wish you didn’t. You can lose your faith and still pretend, because there are bills to be paid, because you are booked up for a year, because this is what you do.

One morning in the early 1980s, I looked out over several acres of pale blue polyester and some twelve thousand Southern Baptist ministers. My evangelist father — Francis Schaeffer — was being treated for lymphoma at the Mayo Clinic, and in his place I’d been asked to deliver several keynote addresses on the evangelical/fundamentalist circuit. I was following in the proudly nepotistic American Protestant tradition, wherein the Holy Spirit always seems to lead the offspring and spouses of evangelical superstars to “follow the call.”

The sort of honesty art calls for is, to me, the sort of honesty the language of the Bible calls for. I like how Adele Berlin gets at that, comparing art and the bible; which reminds me of how Helene Cixous uses English to talk about painting compared with language. Maybe I’ll say something about that more later. Now, I think Frank’s on to something about craziness, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what he’s said when he writes:

The only answer to “Who are you?” is “When?”

Not sure he means that to shock, or to be art, but it’s a pretty crazy, a pretty good notion if you ask me. So, you may ask me, Who are you?

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One response to “Crazy for Art: Piss Christ, Playboy Jesus

  1. Pingback: Playboy has standards? Who knew? | The Church of Jesus Christ

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