andres serrano

New York City, June 27, 1990

Joshua Decter: What is unique about the technical apparatus and/or representational language of photography for you, as opposed to other aesthetic systems?

Andres Serrano: I studied painting and sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum, when I was younger. And after two years of studying I realized I couldn't paint or sculpt, so I started taking pictures, only because I was living with a woman who owned a camera. Early on I realized that this medium was well suited for me. My work would not have the type of power it does if it were painting. So for me, photography is the answer.

Decter: Yet your photographic images often have a painterly quality, or at least they tend to evoke certain codes or visual conventions usually associated with painting, while, at the same time, the pictures maintain a slickness or glossiness which would seem to have an intrinsic relationship to mainstream advertising. Do you consider this to be a provocative dichotomy?

Serrano: It's not really a dichotomy or conflict for me. When I was younger, I worked in an advertising agency as an assistant art director and junior copywriter, but I've never been an appropriationist or worked with media from my advertising background – even if this is very distinct and minimal. And certainly there are times when I mimic painting.

Decter: So, you're not attempting to cultivate a reference to systems of mass culture representation, even in a mediated sense?

Serrano: I just find that if you are working with difficult imagery, it's a good idea to make it as seductive as possible. And I think people like Joel-Peter Witkin and Mapplethorpe learned this early on. When I first saw Mapplethorpe's work, I had a problem with it: I thought they were safe pictures. Apparently I was wrong [laughter].

Decter: Is photography a mediating device for you?

Serrano: No. On the contrary, I think it brings the viewer closer, as opposed to painting. When people are confronted with an image that has a reality which they can relate to – like a monochrome of blood, a cum shot, or a piss picture – it's harder to walk away from it and not react to it. Even in its most abstract form, it still has a credibility that goes beyond abstraction.

Decter: So, in a sense, for you it's as much about the photographic image as document of something actual, or at least functioning – on one level – through the codes of "documentary"; and on the other hand, this documentary impulse is taken to a level of abstraction which one may not necessarily associate with the practice of photography in its "conventional" identity.

Serrano: Right, exactly. Although I don't feel comfortable with the word "documentary." I prefer to think of it as a visual record of a fabricated reality. There is also an attempt sometimes to flatten out the picture plane which is more often associated with painting rather than photography.

Decter: Does representation fuel abstraction, and vice-versa?

Serrano: Basically, I have trouble deciding which one I prefer, so I go back and forth. Sometimes they coexist in the same image. As far as I'm concerned, I don't have to choose between either one.

Decter: What is your relationship to the recent preoccupation with the so-called "politics of the body"?

Serrano: My work about the body is quite personal, even though it seems to have struck a more universal chord. My own exploration of the body has been completely intuitive. But I am aware that the fluid pictures – in particular, the cum shots-could and should refer to AIDS, at this time.

Decter: But did you set up an agenda for yourself to make a work about AIDS?

Serrano: No, no. I had worked with blood, milk, and piss, so the next logical fluid was semen. Incidentally, after I did the Ejaculate in Trajectory series, I decided to do something at teh other en dof the spectrum. That is to say that since the cum shots are about male sexuality and reproduction, I wanted to do something about female reproduction and sexuality. So I shot close-ups of used menstrual pads. Again, like much of my work, these appear abstract at first, until you know what it is. Some people (mostly women) have said these were the hardest to take.

Decter: How did your thoughts and feelings regarding Catholicism influence your decision your decision to fixate upon corporeal fluids, if at all?

Serrano: The only connection that I see between Catholicism – my own Catholic upbringing and the work I do – is the Christian obsession with the body and blood of Christ. And my work is an attempt to personalize religion for myself, in the same way that Catholicism uses the body and blood of Christ.

Decter: Uses it perhaps as a metaphor for the consummation of one's faith; or, in the case of communion, "consuming" one's faith.

Serrano: It seems cannibalistic.

Decter: Or somehow sexual.

Serrano: That's the thing about religion. If you look at the work of an artist such as Bosch, there's a bizarre spirituality bordering on the erotic at work that I don't think we see today. Catholicism comes in many colors and cultures, so in this country Catholicism means one thing, while in Latin American countries it can mean something quite different, and so on. I can relate to a spirituality that is very bizarre, very mystical, and at the sametime sexual. There's an alchemy and magic in my work that I knowingly pursue. I think of my art as being a spiritual quest as much as an aesthetic one. But you can't have the spirit without the body.

Decter: Yet your work also seems to index religion in its institutional form, and so one might be compelled to interpret works such as Piss Christ or White Christ in terms of their potentially critical relationship to commodified religion, kitsch religion, or how mass culture has generally absorbed religion into its logic.

Serrano: Of course I'm aware that religion is an institution, but I never ever thought that the symbols of the Church were owned by a particular group of people. And as a former Catholic, it was completely natural for me to want to use these symbols. I feel drawn to these symbols, both as an artist and as a Christian. The most disturbing thing for me regarding what has happened recently with my work is that certain people seem to be insisting that I have no right to use that symbol– and I disagree. I think it's everyone's right, especially an ex-Catholic's right.

Decter: So you're reacting to the attitude, which implies that only certain people have what might be described as a "copyright" on that symbol and that you're "infringing" upon copyright laws, to extend this metaphor a bit further!

Serrano: Yeah, and that's incomprehensible to me. So let them sue me [laughter].

Decter: Yet, ironically, the crucifixion scene is a religious icon that already has undergone a series of "aesthetic" transformations throughout history, particularly in the case of Church-commissioned painting. So Piss Christ, or any of the other photographs featuring a distinctly Christian iconography, may be considered as both belonging to – and making a departure from – that historical trajectory of religious representations.

Serrano: Well, I guess if the Vatican had commissioned me to do a religious work, it would have probably looked different. Or maybe not. Maybe Piss Christ is part of a new order of religious iconography that will eventually be embraced, if not by the Church, then by some of its members. Because, frankly, I don't feel that I debase icons, but rather make new ones.
As far as the crucifix being very aesthetiized, I agree that it already is. And one of the things Piss Christ attempted to do – on some level – was to bring home the reality of the natural crucifixion, which was a very painful and ugly way to die. So if people think that this particular work is debased or disturbing, they should think about what a real crucifixion is supposed to be.

Decter: In a more general sense, do you believe that certain types of art can perform a critical function either inside or outside the parameters of the so-called "art world"? Or, on more specific terms, do you think that your practice really performs a critical function – and if so, how?

Serrano: I think my work does in some ways. It's intended to have a disturbing element, which is another way of saying that it has a criticality. This is necessary to me, otherwise they would just be pretty pictures without an edge – decorative work, and to me that is the most offensive and boring type of work there is.

Decter: One of the most unexpected results of the ideological attacks on Piss Christ – and of course Mapplethorpe – is that it has catapulted normally insulated art practices into the arena of mainstream American politics, ideological struggle, and social conflict. And through this process, art becomes both the target of censorship efforts, and an example of First Amendment rights to freedom of expression. Do such developments then mean that visual art or music has assumed a quite different role or critical function – perhaps, on one level, as a viable tool for protest?

Serrano: I think art should definitely be more dangerous, if the circumstances demand this. People like Gran Fury have been taking art to the streets, in the same way that at one point in history people wanted to take revolution to the street. Which is to say that there are angry voices being heard that will not be silenced.

Decter: A linkage of artmaking and protest?

Serrano: Yeah, but I don't think that it's only visual artists who are doing dangerous work – you can see it elsewhere, specifically in rap music. I think a lot of the rap groups are getting flak for being too black.

Decter: Like the recent banning of 2 Live Crew's album.

Serrano: You know, when I first heard that album, I thought it wasn't great, but it is nasty! [laughter] Sometimes it's hard to be politically correct, especially as far as sexual politics are concerned. But I defend their right to say what they have to say. The same way I defended Mapplethorpe's right to be gay, even though I'm not gay. I bought the record and I don't regret it because, on some level, I have to confess, I find 2 Live Crew interesting. Anything that outrageous can't be all bad.

Decter: Ironically, the forces of censorship have to some degree "empowered" certain cultural practices.

Serrano: There seems to be a raging battle going on. And we don't know which side is winning. And we won't know until one side is floored and defeated. The irony is that they strengthen us when they attack us rather than the other way around.

Decter: So you don't think that these issues will remain in conflict – and in some ambiguous contradiction – in this society for quite a long time?

Serrano: It feels as if it is a back and forth dynamic between progress and regress. There are so many angry artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers out there, and they will eventually kick some ass. Anyway, it takes protest to make progress. And certainly at this moment, there has to be a lot of protest.

Decter: But protest always functions in relation to context – in a sense, it's how images are read within particular social, cultural, and political domains. Do you make your images for a specific audience in order to produce or elicit a specific reception/reading?

Serrano: I feel that I am the artist and the audience – so I always make it for myself. But I've become a little more aware that there is actually an audience for my work. In the past, I felt that I was basically working a vacuum. That is to say, I wasn't getting enough feedback on my work in order for it to make a significant impact on me. Now I feel that there is both a receptive and an antagonistic audience out there for my work. I like to give people what they want and what they don't want.

Decter: What are you working on currently?

Serrano: My new work is completely different. This is not to say that I won't continue doing the body-fluid work, but I've also embarked on a new project that refers to Edward Curtis's portraits of the American Indian – which I've always admired. It took me a while to realize that his pictures were controversial in his own time, and continue to be so even today – because of his use of the American Indian as a studio prop. The fact that he was a white man using members of another class and race for his own aesthetic purposes didn't help matters any. One of the criticisms against Curtis is that he isolated his subjects from their natural environment and superimposed an invented reality on them that may or may not have existed. So my new work might be problematic for similar reasos. As an artist, there is a fine line sometimes between art and artifice, between ploration and exploitation. And I, for one, intend to walk it.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.