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A Thousand Points of Light,
A Thousand Shades of Gray

by Jeff Gates


Andres Serrano's Piss Christ has been portrayed as blasphemous by many politicians and the religious Right. Yet, there has been little discussion (outside the art world) of the context in which Serrano made this photograph. Rather than vilifying the Church, this image, with its plastic, dime store crucifix sitting in a container of the artist's urine, comments on the commercialization of religion. Interestingly, if Serrano hadn't told anyone what gave his image its orange color, no one would have known and the controversy probably would never have occurred. Context is important. Yet, without fur questioning Serrano's intent and his background (he grew up in a Puerto Rican family, where culture and Catholicism are often synonymous) it is hard to give a fair and balanced reading of this piece. His work has become a symbol for what is wrong with this society, but for the wrong reasons.

Next year marks the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' "discovery" of America and there is much discussion about the veracity of what we were taught about him and his adventures. Zzi Dor-Ner, in his book Columbus In The Age of Discovery (and its translation on a recent PBS Special), tells us that the explorer has been used repeatedly throughout the history of this country to represent numerous interests and groups. Columbus was portrayed by colonial America as the First American, not Catholic, but more as a Protestant reflection of revolutionary interests. In the nineteenth century he was then adopted by the Irish as the First American Catholic and later by the Italians as the First Italian-American. Now, his image has taken a turn for the worse. His exploits in the New World are now described as setting the stage for the massacre of the indigenous population, both through conquest and the introduction of new diseases.

text If we are looking for the truth, there are many here. We often use people and events to define an image of ourselves and important issues at any given time. What is critical is that we acknowledge the constantly changing character of these ideas. It is the context in which they are viewed which clarifies our understanding. History is not set in stone, but is constantly being rewritten and redefined.

Multiculturalism, which as a cultural and educational program calls for the incorporation of more than just the traditional Eurocentrist version of historical events, has become the latest battleground for our cultural backbone. There are as many histories as there are people, and it seems logical that the more we know about all of our pasts, the richer our culture. Yet, the fight to include these histories in a broader definition of American thought has been portrayed by the Right as the machinations of an amorphous, yet dangerous "politically correct" elite. Characterizing the issue as radical and extreme and in such simplistic terms deflects an open debate and ignores the changing nature of our country.

As we watched the events of Thomas' confirmation to the Supreme Court unfold, the notion that different versions of reality can simultaneously exist became apparent. To portray Professor Hill or Clarence Thomas as a liar in the name of clarity serves only to cloud complicated issues precisely when we need clarification. Sexual harassment is a real problem, based on the perceptions of those involved. There are no hard and fast rules, and this makes looking for context even more important. Just as in the controversy over multiculturalism, our inability to acknowledge competing ideas within the framework of patent dialogue works against an open society and leads to authoritarian behavior.


© 1991 Jeff Gates. No reproduction in whole or in part may be used without prior consent of the author.

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