Let me just say up front that I'm not an art critic by any stretch of the imagination. I don't know what art is good or why. But I'm kind of blown away by this picture of a plastic Obama supposedly submerged in Glenn Beck's pee.
I can't stop thinking about it. Not because I'm upset at the artist — Glenn Beck, in this case — but because I think this might, unintentionally, be the most illuminating piece of contemporary religio-political art made in years. I believe that if you understand this photo, you understand just about everything in American religion and politics in the past five years.
The object itself — the figure in the ostensible jar of pee — isn't really that great. Our own Laura Hutson says, "Boring, unoriginal and barely shocking, really. You can rest easy — he's still a hack! No hidden talent after all!" It's an unsubtle spoof of Andres Serrano's Piss Christ predicated on a dubious idea, which I'll paraphrase: "Liberals didn't raise a peep when Serrano dunked the image of Christ in urine — but they'll howl bloody murder when they see their precious Obama awash in my pee!"
Never mind that lots of religious liberals found Serrano impossible to defend — one reason his piece made such a useful weapon against the NEA. Or that there might even be some conservatives who don't care for Obama but also don't relish the sight of a white guy symbolically peeing on our black president. With Serrano, whatever malice exists in the work is a matter of debate. With Beck, it's hard to argue there's anything else.
But if the jar alone is poor, one-dimensional art — and weirdly cruel to boot — I'm growing more convinced that this picture at the top of the post is not. It might just be great art.
Try to forget that this is a picture Glenn Beck took of his little arts & crafts project. Try to forget, just for a minute, Glenn Beck's involvement at all. And try, just for a second, try to pretend we don't know the Piss Christ reference. Let's just consider the picture of a plastic Obama submerged in some sort of juice (or perhaps a pickling liquid) in a Mason Jar on a counter in someone's house.
There are some things we notice. The house is large, and judging by the large room with high ceilings in the background, it's either fairly new or has been extensively remodeled. There's a Christmas tree, along with some large posters or art pieces in the background. This is the home of a wealthy Christian.
The Obama figurine is wearing a robe that looks like a choir robe, or the robes that child angels are given to wear in Christmas pageants (though those are often one in the same). The grapes on the Mason jar form a kind of inverted triangle that seems to suggest the triangle of the Christmas tree. That — coupled with the robes on the Obama figure, dressed like an angel that might be on that tree — seems to indicate that the artist wants you to see those two things as a piece: Obama in the juice means something in conjunction with that tree.
And then the Obama figurine is in a Mason Jar, like he's been kept in the basement on a shelf with the peaches and the green beans and brought out here at Christmastime, so that we can have something that reminds us of summer. See what I'm saying? If you don't know that's supposed to be piss, it's not immediately clear that this is an image intentionally hostile to Obama. Contemporary art is weird. It could be about preserving him, bringing him out when needed.
But the thing that really strikes me is that, once you know it's supposed to be pee, the Christmas tree looks almost profane. Is the artist suggesting that a Christian would submerge an image of our president in pee? That doing so is somehow compatible with his or her Christianity? The idea that a person who follows the teachings of a man who says, "Love your enemies as yourself" could display the degradation of his enemy like this causes me a little cognitive dissonance. (Never mind the large great room of a man who's been commanded to take all he has and give it to the poor.)
Put another way: If we're to believe that the person who put the Obama figurine in the jar is following Christ's admonition, then it seems like we're looking at the work of someone who must really loathe him or herself.
And that's what makes me think this is a genius piece of political art, in spite of Beck's intentions. The figure in the jar might just be Beck's big offensive fuck-you to the president. But the picture of the figure in the jar seems almost like an intentional exploration of a religiosity that's grown immensely powerful, politically, socially and financially — big enough to display degraded images of political figures like hunting trophies — yet in so doing has gone way, way off course.
If Glenn Beck the pundit could see what Glenn Beck the photographer was up to, I contend he'd be as angry at Beck the artist and his Pee Pee Obama as he is at Serrano and his Piss Christ.