Controversy has almost become the new norm circa 2015, with sex, nudity, drugs, and fetishes being discussed more than your average topics. One is more likely to come across the photograph of a nun and a priest during sexual intercourse than the family of four having dinner. Rewind back a few dozen years, the scenario changes.
Submerging a crucifix in his own urine into a glass, ‘Piss Christ’ (1987), Andres Serrano was truly the definition of controversial. It is easy to detect his engagement in “basics in life,” whether those included bodily fluids, religion, or death. We had the chance to get to know Serrano’s thoughts on those debates over his images, on the freedom of expression and on what contemporary culture has given way to.
You see yourself as a ‘conceptual artist with a camera’ rather than as a ‘photographer’. Can you tell us more about your approach to photography?
I studied painting and sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum Art School in the late Sixties as a young art student. My approach to photography has always been the same, as a means to an end, and the end is a work of art.
Your projects deal with issues such as religion and sex that sometimes clash with each other and with the rest of the society. Why exactly are you so interested in themes that are considered to be controversial or provocative?
I’ve never been concerned with controversy or provocation, only with giving birth to my ideas. The best provocation is often unintentional. It’s better when it happens naturally without warning.
How important is the taboo aspect in your body of work? Do you like to make people feel confronted?
I have the unfortunate luck to be considered a “controversial artist,” meaning it’s expected of me to be controversial and when I’m not, people are disappointed. It’s a cross I have to bear.
‘Piss Christ’ was a flash point of the Culture Wars in the 1990s. Do you think America will ever move beyond the Culture Wars?
I thought they had in the sense that it’s not in the news anymore. I think America is somewhat provincial when it comes to art. Most Americans go more to movies, concerts, sports events, or engage social media than visit galleries or museums. The art world is not as big as it thinks it is when it comes to the general public. They couldn’t care less.
I have the unfortunate luck to be considered a “controversial artist,” meaning it’s expected of me to be controversial and when I’m not, people are disappointed.
Does commercial success interest you? Do you think art as a career?
I’ve always been a struggling artist, struggling with different issues at different times. You can’t be an artist without the struggle. At least not the kind of artist I am.
You once said ‘Freedom of expression comes at a price. It means putting up with people, ideas and arguments you don’t like.’ Can you elaborate a bit?
We live an age where anyone with an IPhone or computer can have an opinion that can potentially reach a large audience and many times that opinion can seem to defy logic or common sense. You have to accept that every time someone does or says something right, there will be others who say the opposite..
Given the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. and your heritage, is there a particular subject that you would explore in Cuba?
Three years ago I spent 6 weeks in Cuba taking pictures. I did everything I wanted to except take Castro’s picture.
What is your favorite picture you have ever taken?
I have many from different series, for instance, “Leo’s Fantasy” from “A History of Sex,” “Infectious Pneumonia” from “The Morgue,” “Imperial Wizard” from “The Klan” and “Black Supper.”
What is your favorite Renaissance painting?
“Mona Lisa” because it’s the best known painting ever.
Who are your favorite photographers?
I like Richard Avedon, August Sander, Pierre Molinier, Paul Outerbridge, Man Ray, Horst, Diane Arbus, Walker Evans to name a few.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
To have lived so long and made so much work.
What is the biggest risk you have ever taken?
Probably leaving my New York Gallery.
What do you most dislike about contemporary culture?
Television shows and music I can’t relate to.
What do you most like about the world we live in?
That it hasn’t blown up yet.