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Leonardo da Vinci (1) vs. The guy who did Piss Christ

Determining yesterday‘s winner turned out to be complicated. On the face of it, the decision should be easy. Bruno Latour is some postmodernist dude, whereas Albert Camus is one of the coolest men who’s ever lived.

But, in comments, Kyle came in with a pretty powerful argument:

I’m afraid you couldn’t get Camus to stay anywhere he couldn’t smoke.

Columbia’s no-smoking-indoors rule is, I think, inflexible.

We also have this from Jonathan: “If I had to come up with some justification, it would be that Camus would best appreciate the irony of being pitted against the least well-known person in the entire tournaent in the very first round and still losing.”

In a similar vein, Nick argued: “Like almost everybody else I have no idea who Bruno Latour is. I guess the best argument in favor of him is that the whole “must see” speaker idea came from him, so he really must be something! Of course, even if he isn’t, just think of the exclusivity of attending his seminar! You will be the envy of your friends and coworkers! And because they will never have the chance to see him themselves they will be none the wiser. He’s the ideal seminar speaker because he is ‘the ideal seminar speaker.’ Tough to out-absurd the absurdity of this situation.” Indeed.

So a Latour victory would be the best story. But then came this late entry from Person:

Camus might give an exception with his smoking rule to such an important speech (If it is on a blog it is of utmost importance) and would have some pretty good information. Latour, on the other hand… Well, do you want to go to a seminar in which you have to write an essay showing why you should go and listen the amazing Bruno Latour speek? I personally, would go with Camus.

Good point. All jokes aside, we’d much rather hear Camus, and we wouldn’t even have to write an essay to prove ourselves worthy of him. So it’s the Algerian who advances to the next round.

Sorry, Bruno. You can be consoled that in the real world you’re the one who got to speak at Columbia. Click here to see the full video, which is a stunning 1 hour and 22 minutes long. (I’ll leave it to someone with a higher boredom threshold than me to actually watch the thing.) You also got to have your play Gaia Global Circus presented “with support from The Cowles Charitable Trust and The Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, with assistance from the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at the Columbia Journalism School and Alliance (Columbia, École Polytechnique, Sciences Po, and Panthéon-Sorbonne University), and in part by public funds from New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.”

And now today’s contest:

It’s a classic matchup. The greatest artist of all time (who is also the #2 “Leonardo” on all of Google) vs. the creator of one of the most controversial artworks of 1989.

Who do you want as a seminar speaker? My first inclination is to give the nod to Leonardo, cos he could also talk about science, and maybe after a few drinks he’d let slip some clues about what’s the deal with the Da Vinci code. On the other hand, the guy who did Piss Christ probably has a lot of good stories. And, if we publicized his talk widely enough, we could probably get lots of protestors and that could really rock the house.

So it’s a tough call. What are your thoughts?

P.S. As always, here’s the background, and here are the rules.


  1. Mark says:

    I suspect that Da Vinci would have appreciated Piss Christ himself, and, in fact, I think that Da Vinci might have created such a work of art himself… had they (or he), of course, invented either photography or plastic by then. So, Da Vinci could have done Piss Christ, had he only had the tools, plus all of the other cool stuff that he actually did, so… Da Vinci.

    • zbicyclist says:

      Mark, I’d let you ask Leonardo that question.
      I think the opportunity to ask Leonardo da Vinci if he would do “Piss Christ” is reason enough to give Leonardo the win. There is no equivalent question to ask his opponent.

      Leonardo is not just A Renaissance man, he’s THE Renaissance man.

      I’d like to ask him whether he did those frescoes on convent walls to pay the bills so he could do science, or whether I’m just misunderstanding the economics of being a very talented person at that time and place.

  2. jonathan says:

    I have no desire to hear Andres Serrano talk about the use of urine and feces in his work. Or worse, demonstrate.

    • Anonymous says:

      If Serrano had done PissMohammad that would have taken some brass, but PissChrist is the work of a coward and knave. It’s like someone waving a red cape in front of angry bunny rabbits and then bragging to bull fighters about how “edgy” and “brave” and “transgressive” they are.

      • Andrew says:


        From Wikipedia: “Serrano has not ascribed overtly political content to Piss Christ and related artworks, on the contrary stressing their ambiguity. He has also said that while this work is not intended to denounce religion, it alludes to a perceived commercializing or cheapening of Christian icons in contemporary culture.”

        Nothing there about Serrano claiming to be “edgy,” and “brave,” or “transgressive.” It’s my impression that all the bragging and shouting came from the other side.

      • Anonymous says:

        Hey Andrew maybe Serrano never made PissMohammad because that would have been too apolitical and ambiguous. PissChrist had just the right amount of apolitical ambiguousness to impress his artiste friends.

      • Anonymous says:

        I’m a freedom of speech absolutist. By “freedom of speech” I don’t merely mean a narrow reading of the first amendment. I mean a broad and deep freedom to do and say as we please.

        So while I’m sure some old dude in the ‘heartland’ was deeply hurt by PissChrist, I don’t care. Freedom’s more important. I’m also sure back when that NASA guy wore a cartoon shirt with buxom babes on it, some spinster fainted and quit her science career thereby spreading gender inequality in the hard sciences. But, I don’t care because Freedom is more important. There’s no doubt many devout Muslims were deeply offended by European cartoonists. But, I don’t care because freedom is more important.

        Now most people disagree. Judging by their actions 80-90% of the world doesn’t think Freedom is particularly important. But artists like Serrano claim they do value freedom. In reality though, freedom of speech for them is just something to exploit when it’s easy and profitable to do so. Drum up a little religious (Christian specifically) controversy and you’ll be the star at every Manhattan cocktail party for the rest of your life.

        But when defending freedom of speech is hard, dangerous, and ruinous, toads like Serrano are quiet as a church mouse and nowhere to be found (99.99% of the time).

        I vote for Leonardo.

        • Person says:

          Freedom is important as long as we do not take it to extremes. My freedom to kill someone is revoked so that none has the freedom to kill me. That really is, the basis of leadership. But let us come to the point. ‘The guy who did PissChrist’ as the speaker would be the second best academic poster ever. “Quote from Jrc”. But this is about the best speaker, not the person who would make the most people come (being good would make people come, but making people come does not necessarily mean good speaker, he just would not work. So let’s just hope the translator knows Italian, or Latin, or Florentine, or whatever Leonardo #2 speaks. Or else I propose Google translate. Seriously, Leonardo da Vinci for the win.

          • Anonymous says:

            “Freedom is important as long as we do not take it to extremes”

            There’s not much danger of that happening. Phil’s response on this blog to Great Gaudy Shirt Scandal of 2014 was to demand every male in every university/research group be subjected to enough mandatory re-education training to where they only ever think the same “good” thoughts Phil thinks. The University of Michigan just created a long list of everyday words and phrases which are banned on campus. Examples could be multiplied Ad nauseam. Worrying about freedom taken to extremes is about like worrying that China will be depopulated one day. Maybe it will, but not today.

            “But this is about the best speaker”

            Indeed. When the going gets rough avant garde push-the-envelope artists like Serrano let cartoonists or women (such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali) do their fighting for them. Get one of those cartoonists or Ayaan to speak instead, not only would they have some stories to tell, but your soul would be fortified with a little extra courage as well.

  3. Jay says:

    Andres “The guy who did Piss Christ” Serrano sounds like he’s had quite the life base on wikipedia. Non-Piss Christ highlights from his wikipedia page:

    “Serrano’s work Blood and Semen III is used as the cover of heavy metal band Metallica’s album Load, while “Piss and Blood” is used on ReLoad.”

    “Andres Serrano adopted the alter ego “Brutus Faust” to create the full length album Vengeance Is Mine in July 2010. The album contains covers of classic songs from the 1960s, and original compositions including four songs written by Serrano’s wife Irina Movmyga as well as one song co-written by Serrano, Thad DeBrock, and album producer Steve Messina…”

    “In 2013, Serrano made a work of art called Sign of the Times by collecting 200 signs from homeless people in New York City, usually paying $20 for each sign.”

  4. Anonymous says:

    Serrano. Any schmuck can paint the Mona Lisa, but good luck finding someone who can piss in a jar.

  5. jrc says:

    Obviously, da Vinci is a better speaker, a better artist and possibly the pinnacle of human achievement wrapped up in one person. But the seminar anouncement featuring “the guy who did Piss Christ” as the speaker would be the second best academic poster ever.

    So I vote for the guy who did Piss Christ so I can keep the poster in my office.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Leonardo is often considered a proto-scientist, but that’s fairly misleading. “Scientists” like Galileo and Newton were actually head-in-the-clouds philosophers who studied things (like Euclid’s Elements) that were considered about as practical as medieval debates on how many angels could fit on the head of pin.

    Leonardo’s education was of an entirely different type. His training was that of an artisan, merchant, or engineer’s apprentice. His mathematics was the kind of arithmetic that shop keepers needed and the very basic geometry carpenters required, that’s it. He admirably tried later in life to teach himself university math, but failed.

    It would be interesting to ask him about the level of engineering technology in his day. It’s unclear how many of his works/inventions were actually just things he’d learned about. It’s likely engineering in his day was much more sophisticated than commonly realized (same for the middle ages and the ancients). A lot of that stuff was trade secrets, passed down for generations, and not published. He could provide an amazing glimpse into important but obscured stage of technological development.

    His math was so little that whenever he saw two things were related he’d propose a linear law connecting them. As one report put it:

    “The facts before us are simple:

    1. In physics, some relations are linear and some are not.
    2. Leonardo never proposed any relation other than a linear one.
    3. Leonardo did propose dozens of linear relations.
    4. From 1) and 3), some of Leonardo’s rules may be expected to come out right”

    Leonardo’s admirers would search his works for evidence of genius and would hit upon the few considered correct today and ignored the many more he got wrong. That kind of hero worship creates a distorted picture of what he actually did and how he did it.

    On the other hand, he was aware, apparently through keen detailed observation, that the atmosphere is a fluid. It might seem obvious now but it wasn’t historically, and if you don’t realize that you’d never think to apply fluid and wave mechanics to the atmosphere or gases.

    At any rate, I could easily think of about 100,000 question to ask Leonardo and none for piss boy.

  7. Tom says:

    He may be the #2 Leonardo on google but I think the ninja turtles should be treated as a unit. Leonardo is a guy who could achieve more on a hungover saturday morning than most piss artists could attribute to a lifetime. It may not be the last supper but is certainly the last chance saloon for the piss christ guy.

    • Elin says:

      When my daughter was ninja turtle age I had a theory that all the competitive parenting people liked having people overhear their kids argue about who they wanted to be: Leonardo, Micheangelo or Raphael.

  8. Xi'an says:

    I am glad Camus was not eliminated on the basis of the non-smoking rule! But maybe a stronger no-peeing rule could remove Serano from the picture. While Leonardo could certainly do a fantastic talk on the blackboard with chalk, an alas vanishing tradition!

  9. Alex Godofsky says:

    It looks to me like da Vinci is only the third Leonardo on Google, after DiCaprio and the ninja turtle.

  10. fred says:

    +1 for the guy who did not piss Christ

  11. Ethan Bolker says:

    A chalk talk over a piss talk(?) does it for me.

  12. Given his constant use of bodily secretions. I suspect Serrano is going to go down as One commenter put it like a turd in a Jacuzzi…

    Leonard from Vinci on the other hand …. what’s not to like? I think the biggest issue is just how hard it will be to decide what the seminar should be about. Maybe booking an extra couple hours for Q&A as well. It’s gonna have to be a big room too… Can we simulcast?

  13. Person says:

    We ask the secret of the Mona Lisa, and whatever secrets he has, and sell it to the Louvre or something. Since it was my idea I take 49% of the cash.

  14. John Mashey says:

    +1 for Leonardo, especially as I’d like to ask him if there was any truth to the old science-fiction story about some time-traveler who never returned, named Leonard Vincent.

    However, as a consolation prize for Serrano, Art Robinson, who has run and failed several times to be elected an Oregon Representative, is seeking urine samples from Oregonians or anyone else, so there may be some synergy.

  15. Matt Beaven says:

    Intelligence > Pond Scum. Leonardo > the piss guy. If he comes, I may have to piss on him.

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