Discussion of whether Jesus was a Vampire has taken an inevitable turn towards discussion of the Big J’s phylactery, the piss-christ. Now, I’m not a big fan of the piss-christ, I haven’t seen it in person but it doesn’t seem like good art and it doesn’t seem like a good contribution to the debate about christianity. I’m also sympathetic to the view put in comments that modern christianity has been defanged, and it’s no longer particularly brave or radical to take the piss out of it (haha). What I’m not so sympathetic to is the view that the modern art scene has an unacceptable anti-christian bias, or that the current crop of artists should be focussing on a wider debate about all the different religions. This is because:

  • The main thrust of modern conservative debate about identity in the English-speaking world claims that we are a “christian” society with a “judaeo-christian” heritage. See, e.g. this repulsive tweet – by a christian – on Anzac Day. You can’t claim that we’re a christian society and then complain that people who want to criticize their own society’s morals and social structures lay into christianity.
  • Most of the modern crop of artists didn’t come of age in the post-9/11 world, and the context they grew up in was a vigorous and sometimes violent fight against a christian movement not yet in full retreat. In the era they grew up in, Islam and Hinduism were non-events, non-issues, they probably neither learnt about nor knew about them. It’s rich to expect them to change their angst in late adulthood because a few western leaders decided to start a war with a previously largely irrelevant religion

I’m not going to talk about the first problem (reaction against claims of judaeo-christianity) here, but I do want to talk about the context of the artists’ upbringing, because a) it relates to role-playing and b) Paul in comments has suggested that the reaction to the Satanic Verses is indicative that actually Islam was a big issue in the 80s (the fatwah against Rushdie occurred in 1989). I don’t think this is true – I remember when the fatwah was issued, and it came as a complete shock to Westerners – and I want to do a quick scout through the main pop cultural movements I’m familiar with from the 70s and 80s, to give a highly biassed account of how completely irrelevant Islam was in the development of the sensitivities of the current crop of “elder” artists.

And Serrano is an elder. The piss-christ was made in 1987, suggesting that he “matured” (in physical years, if not in artistic merit or sense) before 1987. In fact he’s in his 60s now. So is it reasonable to suppose that he should give a drop of piss about Islam or Hinduism? He was raised in New York by a strict catholic family, so it seems like popular culture in the 70s and 80s is more relevant to his development and his perspective on art than, say, Osama bin Laden.

New York, Islam and the Debates of the 80s.

So what was going on in New York in the 70s and 80s? I don’t think we can say that Islam was a big issue in the melting pot of 70s and 80s America; this site suggests that today in NY there are 160,000 arab Americans, who came in two waves, the first of which was in 1925 and was largely Christian. This is not exactly a big population for New York, and a lot of them aren’t even Muslim (and probably the descendants of the 1920s migrants don’t even think of themselves as Arab-Americans, after 3 generations). The second wave of migrants in the 1960s may have raised some issues about settlement, integration etc. but this needs to be seen in context – 1 million Vietnamese moved to the USA in a few years after 1975, and Chinese migration was an ongoing process in the US. The debates in the western world about migration in the 1970s and 1980s focussed on Asians, not Muslims, and really the issue of “Islamification” only came up in the 1990s, after the collapse of Israel’s war in Lebanon and the camp David peace accords, the second intifada, etc. – i.e. in response to the growing presence of Islam in western news reports, and corresponding waves of refugees fleeing those countries.

If you look at some of the pop cultural stuff specific to New York or the Eastern seaboard from the 70s and 80s – things like the work of Brett Easton Ellis, movies like Heathers and the other teen-movie stuff of the time, Wall Street etc, they’re much more concerned with debates about in- and out-groups in New York, as reflected in class and some regional or christian-specific categories (like WASPs vs. nerds, or simliar) than they are about Islam. I remember watching 21 Jump Street and Cagney And Lacey, and episodes about migrants and discrimination were rare, and primarily focussed on Asians. 21 Jump Street had a few episodes about e.g. abortion, HIV/AIDS, etc. but the background of political trouble to these was always christian. As an outsider looking at NY, I don’t see much evidence that Serrano would have been growing up in an environment where other religions were much of a significant factor.

The key issue in the west in the 70s and 80s was the uneasy relationship between christianity and civil society as envisaged in a modern liberal democratic state. There was a low-key conflict going on between popular culture and christian sensibility, that occasionally exploded in controversy, and this conflict provided fertile soil for the imagination of budding artists. I don’t know much about art, but there were some pop-cultural movements at that time that I understood, so let’s look at them.

Thrash Metal and the Christian Revival

The shock-troops in this conflict with christianity in the 70s and 80s were undoubtedly heavy metal, who took up where punk’s guerilla warriors left off at the end of the 70s, and mobilized an army of disaffected young men against the religious imagery of the time. This wasn’t equivocal, either – heavy metal hated christianity and christianity hated metal. Islam and Hinduism didn’t figure in this, and in fact it took the generals in this movement – Metallica – 10 years to finally write a song about a religion other than Christianity. When they did, it was a hate-filled screed about alternative religions, telling the very personal story of James Hetfield’s own family life. No interest in the large international religions at all. But before then, Metallica wrote songs like Leper Messiah and Creeping Death that were highly critical of christianity; Slayer were using and abusing christian imagery as much as they could, Testament wrote whole albums about the hypocrisy of christianity (albums like The New Order) and the more skatey/speedy metal bands like Suicidal Tendencies were laying in with criticisms of religion as a prop or crutch, and direct criticism of the new wave of televangelists (with songs like Send Me Your Money). Tellingly, the christian response at the time wasn’t to accuse them of bias and Islam-loving. No one demanded that Metallica write Leper Prophet, or that Slayer’s Expendable Youth be rewritten to include lines about muslim martyrdom. No, instead, they accused these bands of being satanists and wanting children to go to hell. Other religions didn’t enter into this debate at all, and in fact to the best of my knowledge the only song written in that time about islamic countries was Iron Maiden’s Powerslave – which was about the Pharaohs.

The christian response to this was organized and serious. They first tried for censorship, introducing the PMRC (a censorship committee beautifully attacked by Megadeth’s Hook In Mouth), they invented the concept of back-masking and made videos about how AC/DC were satanists who believed they were channelling their dead singer through their new singer; they did speaking tours and later Tipper Gore introduced those abominable censorship stickers called “Tipper Stickers.” At no point did the issue of bias come into it, because religious groups in America in the 70s and 80s hadn’t registered Islam, it was irrelevant. They directly accused their enemies of attacking christianity within a christian framework, i.e. of being satanists. The relative sophistication of the “why don’t you criticize Hindus too” victimization complex is very new.

So, Serrano grew up in an environment where all of the extant good music (i.e. heavy metal) was at war with christianity, and neither side was talking about other religions at all. This isn’t reflected in just the good music either…

Pop Music, Blasphemy and Smut

Madonna exploded onto the pop scene in the early 80s with a huge sexual energy and a lot of catholic angst, and was immediately targeted by religious campaigners. She wasn’t targeted by Muslims or Hindus, but by Christians – and they fed off each other for years. This came to a head with the highly emotionally charged Like A Prayer, where she has sex with a child Jesus[1], but she had already managed to offend with Papa Don’t Preach and, well, pretty much everything else she ever did. Compare the lyrics and imagery of songs like hers with those of Lady Gaga, and you can see that it’s a lot harder to offend anyone now than it was in the early 80s. Madonna used blatant christian imagery in her work, and got a lot of flak for it; but christian imagery wasn’t just used negatively in the 80s  – it was heavily present in the work of bands like U2, Terence Trent d’Arby, the New Romantic movement, The Cure, etc. Through the entire opus of New Romantic work (and there is a lot!) you’ll be hard pressed to find any reference to any religion except Christianity and maybe a touch of Buddhism. Sure, the Cure sing about killing an Arab, but they’re quoting Camus; the Bangles Walk Like an Egyptian but they don’t talk like one, and again when speaking of a North African country they explicitly skip the 800 years or so of Islamic history and go straight to the Pharoahs. Nik Kershaw mentions “a lone man of Aaron” in The Riddle, but that’s pretty much the only reference to Judaism in 10 long years of make-up, military jackets and spikey hair. Meanwhile the christian imagery comes thick and fast, and again much of it positive as well as negative. Particularly Gospel Singers, crosses, kneeling in prayer, churches as symbols of mystery, decay or (generalized) faith. You won’t find a mosque or a Hindu temple as an image of any of these things, though they may be visible in the odd place here and there as a homage to exoticism or the Orient.

So where do we think we can find the most obvious evidence of “alternative” religions being presented? Perhaps in a musical movement symbolized by the Ankh, a distinctly non-christian symbol…?

Goth, Punk and the Wyccan Impulse

Goth music draws heavily on the twin themes of religion and death, and was at its peak during the mid-80s under the guiding influence of bands like Sisters of Mercy, Christian Death[2], Bauhaus and the like. Christian Death spent most of their lives ranting against christianity exclusively, in strong and uncompromising terms; but the other bands in this genre were much more eclectic in their tastes. The Sisters of Mercy are a good example, using a lot of christian imagery but also drawing on the magical (in songs like Floodland) and expropriating middle eastern musical forms, particularly that amazing wailing woman in Temple of Love. But when they took this music, they took it in purely aesthetic terms – the political and religious context was stripped out. It’s as if the cultural background was irrelevant to the Western world, so strange and mysterious that it could not influence thinking beyond the aesthetic. And indeed, when we see groups like Inkubus Sukkubus or Garden of Delight searching for mystical inspiration, do we see them drawing on the extant religions of their day, which they could easily turn to for inspiration were those religions omnipresent in their cultural life? No, Inkubus Sukkubus turn to Wycca and varied notions of pre-Christian witchcraft; Garden of Delight construct a strange personal religion based on the ancient Sumerian angels and Cthulhu. Sure, Garden of Delight have a song called Sharia but the lyrics are completely unrelated to Islam. They have a lot more songs about fallen Sumerian angels than they do about any extant religion.

The efforts of Goths and punks to revitalize Witchcraft, Paganism and Wycca are particularly illustrative in this light. In the late 80s and early 90s there was an interesting blend of hardcore punk that attempted to sing about paganism, and which drew on pagan ideals and mythology; at this same time witchcraft and paganism were beginning to be accepted as a religious theme or ideal for people seeking a new type of religious outlet, and I think even were accepted as one of the religions the US Army allows one to worship (by the end of the 90s). However, in reconstructing these religions the people involved were heavily influenced by a christian context, and thought only of investigating the paganism destroyed by christianity. Had they known anything more about the wider religious setting of the modern era, they could have taken a quick trip to Japan and explored a currently existing pagan religion practiced by 120 million people. They didn’t though, because the context for religious thought in the West is so heavily dominated by christianity that the concept of an animist religion that never came into conflict with christianity doesn’t exist to most of us; the idea of animism living in harmony with modern society is anathema to our concept of religious progress because we see religious progress through the prism of christian conquest. Where non-christian religions entered the popular mind in the 80s they did so only in as much as they were perceived to have a relationship to christianity, or stripped of all context down ot the purely aesthetic.

Context-free Islam in Cinema

Islam was barely relevant in cinema in the 70s and 80s, but where it was shown in movies it tended to be presented as the backdrop for western stories, its own history and culture irrelevant. So we see at the beginning of The Exorcist that the original source of the demon is dug up in Iraq, but the demon itself is christian and Iraq is just an empty backdrop, a series of bazaars and the call to prayer as culture-free exoticism to define the origin of the demon as the middle east; islam is here only as historical fact. In the first Indiana Jones the Holy Land serves only as the colonial setting for the conflict of western powers – neither Judaism nor Islam have anything to say about the expropriation of an object that is sacred to both of them, and all the non-white characters are incidental (or mercenaries to be shot). It’s the same old adventure in a different setting. In A Passage to India we have a love story in a colonial setting, but that’s all it is; even the Zulu movies give barely a moment’s time to elucidating the religious and cultural details of the enemy, which is jsut a black African mass. It’s as if there is not even an awareness of the possibility of other religions, or they’re discounted immediately as irrelevant to the Western story.

And this is the key here – irrelevance. It’s not that people wish to deny the existence of other religions in the world, they just don’t figure into the Western cultural context. Religious representation in the West in the 70s and 80s occurred entirely within the Christian framework.

Role-playing and Christian Censorship

This is also clear in the christian response to fantasy RPGs, which was to accuse them of satanism or idolatry, and to campaign for censoring them. This campaign had partial successes, resulting in schools banning gaming clubs and even a 60 minutes “documentary” on how dangerous these games are. But again, the christian response to these games was not in terms of the risk of allowing other religions into schools, or of the game being disrespectful to religions generally – the only concern was about christianity and satanism. And the games themselves were largely bereft of non-christian religious influences when they started – the Cleric character’s spells are clearly inspired by images of the Priests and holy men of the western religious canon, and about the only non-western monsters are the Rakshasa and the Djinn. Even the conception of Hell is heavily inspired by Milton, Dante etc., rather than drawing on those of other religions (such as the Bhagavad Gita). Campaigns set in middle eastern or Asian settings came much later as “alternative worlds,” and the two key settings right up until 3rd edition were Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms – pantheistic but clearly European and feudal. Warhammer was explicitly christian-themed. The main departure of role-playing from the common themes of religious context we see in other cultural works of this time is its adoption of pantheism. But this pantheism doesn’t change the backdrop from its European feudal setting, and it only provides colour to a character class obviously based around western, christian notions of what a cleric can do. And you won’t find many islamic or hindu objections to RPGs in the western world – when a generation of young nerds grew up in the 80s, they knew that they only had one religious enemy, and it was christianity.

The Politics of the 70s and 80s

Anyone who was growing up or a young adult in the 70s and 80s will remember that the social politics was enormously conservative and heavily influenced by christian ideals; much of the pop cultural struggle in the 80s was to push christianity out of our private lives. In the 70s and 80s christian minsters and evangelists preached their bigotry loud and clear, and attempted to enforce it in ordinary life as much as they could. Homosexuality was still illegal in some places, and violence against gays was both accepted and normal (I even had a GM in the early 90s tell me casually about his younger days “poofter-bashing” on Oxford Street). HIV/AIDS was just entering consciousness and widely decried as a gay disease; discrimination against gays in employment and housing was both legal and common, and attempts to end this discrimination met organized and vociferous resistance from the church. Depending on where you were domestic violence and/or rape in marriage were considered acceptable, and it was generally not considered possible to rape a prostitute – this was theft, not rape. Censorship – in the sense of book burning – was advocated by all major christian groups, and attempts to decriminalize prostitution or drug use were met with extremely vocal christian objections. The police were free to beat, rape and torture members of the underclass, and in the 70s in Australia, the US and the UK political activists were still murdered by their opponents, or the police. In America Irish catholics were raising funds for Irish catholic terrorism in the UK, and christian extremist survivalist groups were establishing arms caches in advance of the coming race war. The doctrine of “blood in the face” and white supremacism were intimately connected with religion in a way that they aren’t now – it was inconceivable that a member of the far right could be openly gay in 70s and 80s Europe, but now their leaders are, and even atheism and vegetarianism are tolerated amongst their ranks – this was impossible in the 80s because fascists were universally christian. The catholic church openly supported, or later tacitly condoned, fascism, torture and mass murder in latin America and the Phillipines. Abortion was still illegal and extremely hard to get in many countries – in Ireland even into the mid 90s children who had been raped were prevented from leaving the country to get abortions by mobs of christians. Even women’s shelters and domestic violence programs were opposed by christians on christian grounds. The numerous victims of child abuse in the church were still either too scared to come forward, or their cases were failing, or their lives were destroyed when they did; and the catholic church was still openly involved in destroying evidence, hiding crimes and moving accused priests to other states and countries.

This was all unique to christianity in the west, though no doubt in Hindu countries there were hindu scandals, and in muslim countries muslim scandals (e.g. Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia). But the central angst of the western world and of artists, musicians and large slabs of what was to become “Generation X,” the central threat to the freer, more open way of life we could see coming was the christian right. Islam wasn’t complaining about Roe vs. Wade; Hindus weren’t objecting to Slayer; Buddhists weren’t trying to ban AD&D or stop the sale of morning after pills to raped teenagers. You didn’t see Shintoists protesting in front of abortion clinics or African animists rampaging through Soho smashing gay bars. They may have been doing that in Egypt, India and Japan; but we didn’t even know what was going on there, or even really care much what religions were practiced where, because we were told every day in no uncertain terms that we lived in the christian west, and that game we liked was an offence to christian values; those people coming here from Africa would dilute christian English blood; those women gyrating on the stage were offending christian values of chastity and modesty.

Conclusion (at last)

By the time the Satanic Verses came out and Islamic engagement with western art exploded centre stage, Serrano was 39 years old and had been making art for 6 years. He was raised a catholic in New York during a period of history when non-christian religions were not a big part of either our cultural sensitivities or our cultural fears – and particularly when Islam and Hinduism were simply considered to be colourful parts of the backdrop of our colonial history. At the time he was creating his work there was an intense cultural conflict playing out, especially in America, between christianity and secular culture, and this conflict probably played a defining role in the development of the artistic sensibilities of Serrano and his peers. It’s highly unlikely that he would have even thought about Islam in his attempts to explore “the relationship between beautiful imagery and vulgar materials.” Somewhat perversely for the christian advocates of the “Judaeo-christian society” they claim is the status quo for the English-speaking west, until they allow other religions to share an equal part of that status quo, both in practice and in rhetoric, it’s unlikely that artists like Serrano will ever spare much thought to making art that criticizes those other religions. This isn’t a sign of the shallow obssession of people like Serrano with attacking a weakened and fading christianity – it is, instead, a sign of the way christians have been able to reserve a special place for their own religion in the ostensibly secular west, whose cultural underpinnings they jealously claim as their own. Until they give up the one, they can’t expect to see much of a reduction in the frequency or intensity of the other – which, on a charitable reading of its value as art, might explain why the piss christ remains a popular artwork 20 years after its creation.

fn1: Thus ticking all the boxes!

fn2: Need I say more?