On Sunday, protests in Avignon against Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ (1987), a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in his own urine, culminated in its glass screen being smashed and the picture itself slashed. The protests were organised by fundamentalist Christian groups as part of a wider ‘anti-blasphemy’ campaign. It is difficult not to draw comparisons with the recent publicity given to the burning of the Qur’an, and subsequent horrific events in Afghanistan. Clearly there is no comparison to be drawn between the destruction of a work of art (however one might deplore an act of violent vandalism) and the brutal murder of innocent people. In fact, although one can draw parallels between Serrano and Terry Jones in their provocative challenge to the devoutly religious, the protestors are also rather like Terry Jones in that their anger found its vent in the destruction of a cultural artefact.
Although they only wanted to damage a photograph, not (though one guard was threatened with a hammer) kill anyone, it is interesting to note that something more than a zealous objection to blasphemy drove some of the protestors. The Guardian reports the racism and bigotry which characterised parts of the campaign:
Asked by the daily Libération why the Piss Christ protest had happened now, Mézil pointed to Sarkozy’s speech in March lauding “the Christian heritage of France” at Puy-en-Velay, where the first Crusades were preached. He said: “Clearly we saw in Saturday’s demonstration that a Catholic fringe wanted to take the president at his word, with extremely violent appeals.” He said there was a climate of tension, with protesters insulting museum staff of north African origin. One guard said he heard: “I’m going to pour donkey piss on the Qur’an.” An email to the museum talked about “plunging the diary of Anne Frank in urine”.
Although some approve of the recent legislation against the veil from a feminist and secularist perspective, it does seem as though Sarkozy’s championing of French values is also reaching out to those who are driven by quite different impulses.