Infamous for his artistic photograph of a plastic crucifix immersed in a glass of urine, Andres Serrano has photographed a variety of controversial subjects and figures, including the Ku Klux Klan, Donald Trump and rap artist Snoop Dogg. Besides just being a talented photographer in general, his more artistic works are usually intended to convey some deeper meaning about their subjects.
Few artists have attained Serrano’s reputation for provocation, and his photographs are not merely criticized for their content, but have in some cases been physically defaced. A print of Piss Christ was slashed by religious protesters in France, alongside other religious-themed photos.
But conservative Catholics aren’t the only ones to take offense to his work, one of which is now being attacked, ironically, by progressive leftist critics for its message on racism.
The Guardian interviewed Serrano, who is currently presenting a new art show at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. They asked him what his favorite photograph was from the exhibit, to which he selected an image called White Nigger, from his 2001 collection The Interpretation of Dreams.
The picture features a white man whose face and upper body are covered in makeup to give him the appearance of a black man with a white body.
“There’s no post-production or digital changes in this image, it’s all the work of a makeup artist. But I made sure you would see there was a white man under this black skin, because prejudice is only skin deep,” said Serrano, who is of Afro-Cuban descent.
“When I did a photo series in a morgue there was a black woman whose skin was deteriorating, and she had white skin underneath,” he continued. “I pointed this out to the morgue manager, who replied that when he was a student in medical school, his teacher took a very thin piece of skin off a corpse, and said: ‘This is the thickness of racism.’”
Other provocative photographs in the series include a masturbating nun, a black man in Klan robes, and a menstruating young woman.
The Univision-owned progressive publication Fusion took issue with White Nigger, deeming it an excuse for a white man to masquerade in blackface. Chris Pulliam-Moore, writing of Serrano whole body of work, said that “one imagines [the works] are meant to shock people into thinking they’re deep.”
“It’s difficult not to look at the picture and think of the countless white people that love to don blackface for shits and giggles apropos of nothing but racism,” complained the writer. “Yes, we all understand that art is subjective and we should all be able to express ourselves as we see fit, but hey, as one black person to another, why don’t we all agree to not encourage blackface as a practice by pulling stuff like this?”
Someone clearly missed the point of Serrano’s photograph.