In recent years, contemporary art has taken an exceedingly liberal stance on the iconic figure of Jesus Christ, allowing us to question not only the morality of religion, but its authority—and the current cultural associations that surround it. For many artists, depicting Christ is not only an artistic challenge, but also a theological and political one, producing provocative results that question religion's validity and the politics ascribed to it. Although controversial, these artists remind us that religious beliefes and opinions are idiosyncratic concepts, and in our Western world it is freely up to the individual to decide both what they would like to depict, and what they'll debate.
Similarly to traditional Christian art, contemporary art has enabled us to recognize societal transformations over time. Many contemporary artists comment on the hypocrisy of religion and its associations with violence and politics throughout history. Take Michele Castagnetti’s Jesus the Hunter, which shows Jesus wearing a rifle, and Norton Maza's installation Del Paisaje y Sus Reinos, which depicts Christ as a modern-day freedom fighter.
Russell Oliver painted Jesus as a slaughtered lamb’s head. He tells The Creators Project, “The Monstrosity of Christ is my critique of Christianity as a cult of human sacrifice—one of scapegoating and vicarious redemption.” Similarly, Cosimo Cavallaro’s six-foot chocolate statue of Jesus remarks on the tie between Christianity and global consumer trends. As Cavallaro tells The Creators Project, "My Sweet Lord is the symbolic representation of the intermingling of Christian religion with industry, tread, globalization, and our addiction to the sinful sweet sacrament of chocolate.” These pieces are not without their negative reactions; My Sweet Lord was described by the head of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue as “One of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever.”
Although deemed sensationalist by some, the use of unorthodox mediums and unconventional forms of expression has, and will continue to challenge rigid preconceptions. One of the most famous controversial depictions of Christ has to be Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photograph of a plastic, crucified Christ figure, submerged in the artist's urine. By using raw, human waste to represent and stand beside divine concepts, Serrano makes Biblical reference to the mortal body and blood of Christ. Since its release in 1989, Piss Christ has caused uproar—in1997 it was hammered and kicked while on display at The National Gallery of Victoria in Australia. Most recently, the Associated Press removed it from its editorial archive in the wake of the deadly Charlie Hebdo attack.
Pushing boundaries to deliver spiritual and societal answers is often met with frustration from artists whose works are misunderstood. Mideo Cruz created Jesus Christ with Mickey Mouse ears as well as a sculpture of a crucifix with a penis. He says, “Some people like my work but the majority of the population is still looking for the conventional form of expression, which makes my life more difficult.” Similarly, sculptor Kendell Geers created a Jesus sculpture with the words "Fuck Only" written all over it. As Geers explained to us, “The response was both negative and positive, depending on the viewer’s prejudice. The word Fuck still has the power and strength to generate emotional responses. It's a word that has two completely contradictory meanings depending on the context. All life is created by the process of fucking and all life will be destroyed if we don't stop to fuck with the cycles of life and nature."
Not all reactions to controversial Christian art are negative, either: Paul Fryer’s Pietà (The Empire Never Ended) is one such piece, which depicts Christ’s death by electrocution. Fryer says, "The piece is an updating of the crucifixion. Two thousand years later we still tie people to wooden contraptions and kill them.” Although controversial, Pieta has provoked positive debate in both religious and non-religious circles, as Fryer tells The Creators Project, “I had two people cry in front of them. That I know of. Complete strangers, that is, in my presence; though I don’t think they realized I was the artist. When the Pietà (The Empire Never Ended) was shown at the Cathedral of Gap in 2009, the response was overwhelmingly positive. I was surprised because I thought the Catholic Church was more conservative than the public-comment books portrayed them to be. The reaction on the whole though, is greater in Europe than in the UK where, it seems, religious iconography is generally taken less seriously.”
Whether you accept, understand—or even enjoy—these depictions or not, the controversial images continue to remind us that, as a tolerant society, we must protect a freedom of speech, opinions, and beliefs of both believers and non-believers. After all, artistic representation has arguably a longer history than any religion or faith.