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Marking Our Turf: The Piss Christ Moment in America's Culture Wars

Editor in chief 1989-1994

If you look at Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ now, it’s hard to see what the fuss was all about: a faintly discernible plastic Jesus submerged in a red-orange liquid. In 1989, though, it was one of the most incendiary images in America, the object of outrage among right-wing politicians like New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and United States senators Jesse Helms and Al D’Amato. That the government had helped to fund such art was an assault on common decency, a misappropriation of taxpayers’ dollars (and, of course, these elected officials questioned whether Piss Christ was “art”). In retrospect, the attack on Serrano (and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe) was the Fort Sumter of the cultural wars: the opening salvo in a conflict that would consume the country and have liberals on the defensive for much of the next 19 years. We didn’t know this at the time. What we did know was that the assault on Serrano and Mapplethorpe was a not-so-veiled attack on gay rights, that the issue of government funding of the arts is extraordinarily complex, that sex and censorship and patronage were at the core of the controversy, and that the whole thing was touching a lot of nerves. In short, we knew it was exactly the kind of subject L.A. Weekly should weigh in on. For the August 25-31 issue, art critic Ralph Rugoff provided a piece about Serrano and Mapplethorpe as artists; former associate editor Michael Lassell wrote about the effect on gay culture; and, most provocatively, columnist Michael Ventura condemned artists for taking money from the government.

The question, of course, was what to put on the cover. The Mapplethorpe photographs with their exposed genitalia were too graphic even by Weekly standards. To try to sort this out I held an ad hoc cover meeting on a Friday afternoon, a loose gathering that included the art director (Scott Ford), the photo editor (Howard Rosenberg) and the arts editor (Steve Erickson). At some point Howard left the room and returned a few minutes later holding up an image, and asked, “What about this?” In the years before computers, Howard had created a set of plastic transparencies of different sizes — each with the Weekly’s logo — that could be laid over a photograph; it was a quick way to see if an image worked as a cover. In this case, Howard had placed a transparency on top of a Polaroid of Piss Christ. It was a brilliant stroke. There in front of our eyes — in front of the eyes of anybody who would see the Weekly — was the most controversial piece of art in America, and what had been lost in all of the debate was that as an image Piss Christ was gorgeous. Someone — I wish I could remember who — suggested that the cover line read: “WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?” There are some covers editors agonize about. There are others you never get right no matter how many versions you’ve come up with. Then there are the rare covers that work the moment you see them. Piss Christ was one of the latter. When it appeared six days later, it did what it was supposed to do: grab people’s attention. But it also did what the Weekly — what all good journalism — is supposed to do: It made us rethink our assumptions.

Kit Rachlis is editor in chief of Los Angeles Magazine.

 


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