The sight of a grown man trying to stuff a bobbing plastic doll into a jar of what he claims to be his own urine is a sad thing, but when that man is right-wing commentator Glenn Beck making a strange comment about freedom of speech combined with a hateful symbolic act against the President, it’s not surprising. Beck tweely titles his artwork Obama in Pee Pee (shown above), but let’s call it what it is—Piss Obama, a 35-years-too-late reply to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, one of the landmark works of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s “culture wars” pitting conservatives versus liberals in the battle for artistic expression. Beck hopes to piss off liberals with this act, but what he might have actually achieved is firing the last shot (squirt?) of the culture wars, proving perhaps once and for all that those cruel days are over.
What pissed Beck off to do this? Michael D'Antuono’s painting The Truth, which depicts Barack Obama with arms outstretched and a crown of thorns on his head in a clear allusion to the crucified Jesus Christ, appeared at the art gallery of Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. Although D’Antuono painted the work in 2009 and it finally appeared publically in the tiniest of venues, Beck rose up as if The Truth emerged fresh from the election last month and found the biggest stage. In fact, Beck and other conservative commentators gave The Truth the big stage and bigger notoriety it now enjoys, but all for their own purposes.
Beck began his anti-art performance art piece by standing before a wall of reproductions not just of The Truth, but also of works by Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, Rubens, and Lucien Freud. Questioning whether any of them are “real” art, Beck manages to revisit pretty much every tangle over taste of the last 400 years. Calling Rubens “the butt-crack guy” for his 1615 painting Venus at the Mirror, Beck fights some strange straw man from the past before moving on to the main event.
Taking a dashboard bobble-head Obama figure, Beck tried to submerge it into a mason jar of what he claimed was his own urine, only to have the plastic figure inconveniently rise up. Beck finally screwed the jar on the work (which he called “Flobama” for its resilient buoyancy) and announced that Obama in Pee Pee would be available on eBay for $25,000. “The auction would be removed by eBay in midstream,” Jerry Salz reports (“midstream”, get it?), “though it continued on Beck's own site.”
In his rambling monologue, Beck calls forth the ghost not only of Serrano’s Piss Christ, but also that of Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, perhaps the most controversial work of the mid-1990s. Beck missed only Robert Mapplethorpe to complete the set. But that omission is especially telling. Piss Christ (like Piss Obama as a response to The Truth) isn’t about religion; it’s about oppression and suffering—specifically the oppression and suffering of the LGBT community in America, both then and now. Serrano chose the medium of bodily fluid at a time when bodily fluids were synonymous with the death sentence of AIDS. Piss Christ wasn’t an attack on religion or religious imagery but rather a modern use of that imagery to depict a new type of suffering and appeal for a new type of understanding and acceptance. Mapplethorpe may have photographed homosexual life in the 80s, but Serrano photographed its spirit.
I believe that Beck’s stunt comes not in response to The Truth but rather to the truth of the last election about public opinion regarding homosexuality and, most significantly, same-sex marriage. Linda Hirshman’s Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution (How a Despised Minority Pushed Back, Beat Death, Found Love, and Changed America for Everyone) argues that the American LGBT movement’s reached a tipping point of public acceptance, literally a victory not just for them, but for all people of any type of difference. The days of “culture wars” pitting American against American based on our differences rather than uniting us on our common values and dreams are over (I hope).
I won’t go so far as to accuse Beck of timing his stunt to blunt the impact of Saturday’s Day Without Art marking the passing of so many LGBT artists over the years. Beck’s statement rambled in so many directions that a clear message is hard to untangle, but the dog whistle of recalling Piss Christ and the “culture wars” of the past clearly tries to sound the classic anti-gay alarm signal. Like Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who fought on for three decades after World War II ended, Beck’s fighting a war long over. Call it Obama in Pee Pee or Piss Obama, Beck’s odd foray into the art world serves only to remind us of a time and a mindset best remembered in its passing.