By Thomas D. Williams, PhDROME — Pope Francis stunned the faithful this weekend when he welcomed some 200 avant-garde artists in the Sistine Chapel, including photographer Andres Serrano, creator of the controversial “#!$$ Christ” work showing a crucifix submerged in a glass of urine.
The pontiff received the artists to mark the 50th anniversary of the Vatican’s collection of contemporary art, telling them that like the biblical prophets, “you confront things that at times are uncomfortable; you criticize today’s false myths and new idols, its empty talk, the ploys of consumerism, the schemes of power.”
“You can see things both in depth and from afar, like sentinels who strain their eyes, peering into the horizon and discerning deeper realities,” the pope told the assembled artists. “In doing so, you are called to reject the allure of that artificial, skin-deep beauty so popular today and often complicit with economic mechanisms that generate inequality.”
Serrano’s 1987 photograph generated enormous press, with many decrying the 60-by-40-inch image as blasphemous. The artist, who describes himself as Catholic, claimed to have submerged the crucifix in a glass of his own urine.
When “#!$$ Christ” was exhibited in 1989, some 50 U.S. senators and 150 representatives complained that the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) had financed the exhibition and the NEA’s budget was eventually cut as a result.
While supporters contended that the controversy over “#!$$ Christ” was a matter of artistic freedom and freedom of speech, Australian Archbishop (not yet cardinal) George Pell sought an injunction in 1997 from the Supreme Court of Victoria to prevent the National Gallery of Victoria from publicly displaying the work.
Your art “strives to act as a conscience critical of society, unmasking truisms,” Pope Francis told the artists in Friday’s audience. “You want to make people think, to be alert; you want to reveal reality also in its contradictions and in those things that it is more comfortable and convenient to keep hidden.”
Andres Serrano was not the only controversial artist invited to the pope’s Sistine Chapel event.
Abel Ferrara, who directed the recent Padre Pio film starring Shia LaBeouf, cut his teeth as a director in 1976 with the pornographic film titled Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy.
Ferrara’s second feature-length film was the disturbing 1979 slasher movie The Driller Killer, a dark urban film about an artist (played by Ferrara himself) who goes on a killing spree with a power drill.
“As visionaries, men and women of discernment, critical consciences, I consider you allies in so many things that are dear to me, like the defense of human life, social justice, concern for the poor, care for our common home, universal human fraternity,” Francis told the artists in his address.