Andres Serrano's Piss Christ is the original shock art
Before sharks swam in formaldehyde, there was Piss Christ. With this work in 1987, Andres Serrano created what is surely the visual manifesto and original prototype of the use of shock in contemporary art.
Other 1980s artists, including Robert Mapplethorpe and Richard Serra, ran into controversy, but Piss Christ is distinguished by its calculated offence and rhetorical nature – the way it sets out to be unmissably outrageous and adopts that offence as part of its meaning.
I mean, it's called Piss Christ and is said to be made using the artist's own urine. It is far more polemical than, say, a Mapplethorpe photograph of sadomasochist rites where the artist portrays what he found beautiful and causes offence almost accidentally. As such, Piss Christ is one of the most influential works of art of the past 30 years, the model for a strategy that has transformed the public impact of art.
Yet the joke on the latest protesters to take Serrano's bait – hey look, Christians, I've urinated on the son of God! – is that Piss Christ works well as a modern work of religious art. I don't know if the curators of the Vatican museum have considered buying a print, but it possesses a richly traditional dimension. The passion of Christ has always been associated with bodily fluids – it is true that artists traditionally stressed blood rather than urine, but they scarcely stinted on the revulsion of Christ's fleshly death.
Piss Christ can be legitimately compared to the horrible sores and green pus on the body of Grunewald's Christ in the Isenheim altarpiece, or painted wooden statues in baroque churches with their lifelike gore and jewelled tears, or Caravaggio's Saint Thomas sticking his finger in Christ's spear wound.
Serrano's crucifix evokes the same kind of popular religiosity Andy Warhol paid homage to in his Last Supper series, another artistic highlight of the 1980s, and just as Warhol was a sincere Catholic, Serrano created a vivid and intense baroque image of the passion. The suffering of Christ is seen through a glass, darkly – or in this case shines through yellow urine, glowing uncannily within the stinking detritus of the body.
There's something in this powerful work of art for everyone. Atheists can savour its insult, Christians can meditate on the victory of the spirit in the humiliation of the flesh. Meanwhile, the easily provoked will never fail to have their anger aroused by a work of art that is spoiling for a fight.