For something to be called art, we were taught in freshman English class, it must have four powers: it must make us feel emotion; it must arouse our imagination; it must inspire us to think. The fourth is the most indefinable: it must have the power to survive.
Twenty-eight years is probably long enough in today’s nano-second electronic age for the artwork to be considered a survivor. We’re still talking about it, responding to its emotional impact, and wondering just what it is all about.
It was a piece that was produced in a specific time, a time that we now are inclined to dump into memory’s trash can. Who remembers the AIDS quilt?
Serrano, a married man, academically trained at the Brooklyn Museum and Art School, and a devout Roman Catholic, cared about Society’s misfits, cast-offs, and all people who were the object of scorn.
Born in 1950, Serrano came of age during the tumultuous days of the AIDS epidemic. Nobody knew what AIDS was, of course… What was believed was that it originated in African apes and was sexually transmitted through male anal intercourse and these two partial-facts added up to the ludicrous claims made by many religious leaders that it was a divine punishment by God for the sin of homosexuality and by many racists that it evidenced the brute sexuality of Negro men who obviously had sex with monkeys and who were, therefore, the cause of so much misery in the world.
The 1980s were not good years to be a male homosexual. The mysterious disease spread quickly. A man could meet a friend on Monday and both would be feeling fine. By the following Monday one had dropped twenty pounds, and by the Monday after that, had strange lesions on his skin – Kaposi’s Sarcoma. Within weeks that man would be buried. Police and other medical professionals often refused to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for fear of catching the disease. Male homosexuals were virtually unemployable. As dramatized by such films as Philadelphia, even brilliant men with law degrees were reduced to the status of the homeless. They were not people that anyone wanted to talk to – much less be associated with. And they died in droves – if anyone remembers the exponential growth of that AIDS quilt. We had a whole class of human beings who were not welcome to sit in a church congregation and who were so jobless that they couldn’t have put money in the collection plate when it was passed. So there they were… completely rejected – and not only by the straight community, but by other homosexual men who, with good reason, feared to be “outed” as homosexual and incur that cruel rejection, or from the also reasonable fear that they could themselves be infected by any physical contact with these potential victims.
My first encounter with uninformed Afro-American men occurred during one of my prison Zen classes. A few dozen men, who were mostly Black Muslims, came to “set me straight” about a remark I had made the previous week. I had casually said that AIDS originated with African monkeys; and their leader, who was in agreement with Berkeley Professor Peter Duesberg’s wretched theory that AIDS was not a disease at all but a “harmless passenger virus” that had ridden to notoriety on the backs of conditions which resonated with poor Afro-Americans, i.e., that AIDS was caused by drugs, poor nutrition, and by being used as guinea pigs for all manner of failed medical experimental cures. Nelson Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, firmly believed Duesberg’s explanation; and the excellence of Mandela and of Berkeley rubbed off onto this idiocy.
Until that day, I don’t think I ever felt even a touch of what it means to be black and to have to listen to the crap that passed for scholarship and religious guidance. The leader of the group demanded to know why I was spreading this filth about Afro-American males. At first, I was speechless. Dozens of angry men – murderers, rapists, etc. – had crowded into my classroom. My first objective was in getting them to calm down, but then I had to answer their question and the first thing I thought of was sheep. I asked, “Do you know how sheep are raised?” Nobody answered. I said, “Sheep are raised in green-field pastures where they can eat grass. In the Congo, where AIDS first occurred, they don’t have green-field pastures. They have trees which are like overhead pastures. Instead of sheep, they have monkeys that live in those overhead pastures. People need protein and monkeys provide protein the way sheep provide protein. Now, when a person wants to eat a monkey it is best to kill it first… and then to gut it. If the monkey has AIDS and the person who kills it or prepares it to be cooked has a cut on his or her hands and the monkey’s blood gets on that cut, that human being is likely to get AIDS. He or she can then spread it. So what is your question?” After some mumbling, they all left. The following week, one Catholic inmate came to talk to me about Piss Christ.
His front teeth had been knocked out – the usual sexual requirement for “fish” (newcomers) in prison life. Slightly effeminate, he said that he had been bullied at school as a kid; ostracized from his family during the AIDS epidemic; and was completely unemployable. He stole some money and I guess the authorities were glad “to get the fag off the streets.” He asked if I thought Piss Christ was blasphemous. I answered (a bit off point), “No… urine is sterile. If you submerged a plastic crucifix of Christ in ordinary drinking water you’d surround him with all manner of nasty creatures. But urine is perfectly clean… sterile.” He had not known that. I asked him what the picture meant to him and he said, “When you love Christ and you’ve nothing left to give, but maybe something that was part of you… your piss… well, then… that’s what you give.”
No, it wasn’t ondinism or urolagnia that he had in mind. It was deeper, much deeper, a kind of “This is my body,” offering. Maybe you have to remember the Gay Plague of the 1980s to understand Immersion (Piss Christ). I remember how I had to stand and be interrogated by very angry men simply because I had said AIDS came out of Africa. They had blamed me for a conclusion they had reached and of which I was innocent. It was they who were ignorant. I defused their anger because I thought of sheep… maybe The Good Shepherd came to me. Who knows? I’ve thought a lot about Serrano’s photo since then, and I remember that tiny hint of what it must feel like to be threatened, blamed, and punished by the ignorant. Most of all I remember a sentence that was as Zen as anything I’ve ever found in the Mahayana Canon. “When you love Christ, and you’ve nothing left to give but maybe something that was part of you…”
Art? You can bet your ass it’s art. It arouses your emotion, and your imagination, and it makes you think. Really think! And, yes, it survives.