The half-dozen contestants, 20-something aspiring artists all, enter the famous Phillips de Pury art auction house. Mr. de Pury himself ushers them into the special room where they are presented with a collection of paintings by Andres Serrano, the man who came to fame in 1989 with the ghastly painting, sponsored by the National Endowment of the Arts, depicting a crucifix dunked in a jar of urine. They are hugely impressed. The final painting they are shown is just that -- the original "Piss Christ." They are in awe, quietly expressing their amazement at the talent. And then the door opens and in steps the master. The students freeze, eyes bright, mouths agape. The curator announces, "the great, great Serrano!" One girl instinctively bows reverently.
Serrano explains his art. "Life, art, politics. It's all the same s---.... People in general always think their s--- is the best. So if you really want to see some real s---, check out my s---." Six times he utters the expletive; the students giggle with glee.
And now the contestants are given their assignment: Create a body of art as shocking as that of Serrano. The judges will select the four contestants who will proceed to the next round. More giggles and laughter. Each artist is given a $100 voucher with which to buy supplies.
One man says he will make an artwork about that "taboo theme," the sexually abusive priest. "It's not an anti-religion piece," he claims. "I don't know anybody personally who's been sexually abused by a priest, but I read a statistic once that said there were more Catholic priests living with AIDS than there were everyone else."
Besides garbled syntax, it is pure idiocy. He can't possibly think a small group of homosexual priests represents the largest grouping of the million-plus Americans living with HIV or AIDS. But he is an artist, and he does. He shoots a crude photograph of two pairs of feet in a bed, below a crucifix. One is meant to represent the priest, the other the abused boy.
That's just the beginning. Now a girl, handsomely endowed, takes a batch of pictures of herself wearing only panties. "High art" is how she describes her product. The curator examines her semi-naked pictures, with emphasis on her naked breasts, and deems the display to be "gorgeous." But what the judges would later describe as "brilliant" is her special touch: setting these pictures next to a black felt-tip pen so the gallery audience could scrawl on them whatever graffiti or obscenities they inspire.