They call it “art”, but in the truth of the situation it is merely offense. What the artistic direction of the Photolux Festival in Lucca had decided to exhibit from 21 November to 13 December is unacceptable: a crucifix immersed in a jar filled with urine, which symbolizes the ambivalent relationship between the sacred and the filthy, religion and blasphemy. It is a 1987 work by Andres Serrano, who managed to shock New York and the entire world with his “Piss Christ”.
“The spirit of the festival is that of balance in a context of freedom – the artistic director Enrico Stefanelli had said at first -. It invites people not to transform the appointment “into political manipulation. That work was not born as an outrageous act nor as a protest against Christ – he continued – but rather against commercialization of images. Besides, we must consider it in the historical context it was produced in: the 80’s”.
Yet, it is not a convincing thesis. To propose today a picture taken in the 80’s, whose artistic value is very questionable, is only the last link in an increasingly heavy chain of aggression against Christianity which is the only religion that has become the butt of alleged artists and satirists. In fact, no one tries to mock other faiths; not even at this exhibition, where the topic of Islam, for example, is treated with respect and in positive terms. A slap in the face of the whole Christian people.
Against this initiative there has been a general outcry. “Whether one is a believer or not – the former minister Giuseppe Fioroni emphasizes – there is one thing we must all share: respect for the other and his/her beliefs and faith. A work of art that offends the religion of millions of people is, from a secular and non-religious point of view, an expression of poor style and violation of the respect for the other. I have criticized myself, along with many other people, the behavior of those who have scorned Muslim religion. Applying the same principle, I hope that the institutions of this country will have the ability and the courage to demand respect for those who believe in Christ. The silence and indifference of those who hold public offices with respect to these events is the terrain that allows the irresponsible to speculate on conflicts regarding religion and faith and seriously undermine peace in the world”.
“Jesus said ‘if they have persecuted me, they will persecute you as well’, therefore, on the one hand, we should not be surprised that even on an artistic level there are blasphemous choices – says the general manager of the Pope John XXIII Community founded by don Benzi, Paul Ramonda – what is surprising, instead, is that a certain kind of culture reveals to be ideology once again. Even more so when reference is made to Catholic tradition, denying thus the richness of Christian experience in culture, which gave origin to unreachable artistic achievements. But the artist must be humble enough to feel part of a whole, of something much bigger, a piece of the Created, otherwise s/he will only express a narcissistic whim. The Catholic people, in its turn, must assert in a very straightforward manner the unique nature of revelation, proposing sacred art to young people without being ashamed of defending its faith”.
Also Lega Nord regional councillors Manuel Vescovi (group leader) and Elisa Montemagni, have opposed it: “We cannot allow Tuscany Region to offer its patronage to an exhibition. It is unacceptable – stress the exponents of Lega Nord in a note – to support initiatives of this kind, where are exhibited works that heavily offend Christianity. A work that humiliates Christ and pays homage to Islam”.
In the end, the artistic director Enrico Stefanelli has backed off, explaining in an open letter his intention not to expose the work. “I was convinced that after almost thirty years later, Serrano’s work – Stefanelli writes – could have been seen from a historical standpoint, having exhausted its polemic charge over the years. With regret, I have realized that socio-cultural consciousness has proved to be inadequate to acknowledge freedom of artistic expression and I had to see that times and places are not yet sufficiently mature to acknowledge freedom of expression”.
“All the work done to build a balanced and deep Festival – he continues –, bring to Lucca important international authors, and build around the exhibitions an extraordinary program of discussions, workshops, portfolio lectures and events seems to have been wasted. The reason for all of it being a photograph that, besides its historical value, had nothing to add nothing to the richness of this edition. The Festival does not deserve it. Lucca does not deserve it”, notes the director,” and adds. “This is the reason why, aware of the fact that this photograph affects so strongly the sensitivity of many people and so many Christians who have expressed their dissent and to whom I address my excuses, I decided that “Piss Christ” will not be part of this edition of the festival. A decision I have taken with serenity, so as to make ideological polemic take place on a different level and elsewhere, sparing the context of the artistic event”.
We have to take note of his apologies as well as of the withdrawal of the work, but the letter of explanation still contains something unacceptable. Defining as “freedom of expression” gratuitous offence to a religious symbol, at a time when every provocation is a harbinger of misunderstandings and confrontations, is a rather short-sighted vision of modern society. Haughtiness that, in the name of culture wants the “others” to understand, is at least out of place. To define ”ideological polemics” the response of the faithful to this useless aggression against it means playing with words. One last consideration: if he had been a little less self-referential and a bit more immersed in the time we live in, he would have thought himself about not exposing a work that, to put it in his own words, 30 years ago had polemic force, and whose strength in the current international context has increased exponentially rather than vanished.