Next Great Artist 4: Not Much Shock and No Awe At All

Posted July 2nd, 2010

Shock takes center stage in this episode of Work of Art—or at least it was supposed to.

The celebrity du moment was Andres Serrano whose Piss Christ, a large-scale photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine, sent various members of the religious right and United States Congress into an absolute tizzy in 1989 and remains the paradigm of blasphemy and artistic chutzpah to the present.

The challenge was to shock. The results were anything but shocking.

Let’s get past the issues of winners and losers right away. The ante was upped for the eleven still standing: the challenge would take out two artists this time. Abdi won with his black men as bombs. Nao and John made their farewells.

The work was generally bad. Why? Because the purpose of the art was to shock and shock in and of itself is not a meaningful artistic value.

I was reminded of the late Patrick Sky’s album, Songs That Made America Famous. (Click the link for “Fight for Liberation.”)

In Patrick’s words, there was something there to offend everyone and on the back of the album he gives “A Word of Thanks” to, among others,  “to the Pope, the Capitalists, the Revolutionaries, Women Libbers, Ethnic Minorities, the Good Guys, Freaks, Junkies, the Bad Guys and all the other people who made this fucked-up record possible.”

Most of us in the artsy-folksy community in Boston in the sixties and early seventies thought the album was funny as hell—and most of us couldn’t listen to it through without cringing at least once.

Sexuality dominated the works produced for this challenge: autofellatio and erotic asphyxiation, pedophilia, boobs, buttholes, and penises aplenty. Miles and Simon de Pury bonded over reminiscences about their first erections. Miles found a scene in Disney’s The Little Mermaid stimulating; Simon got turned on by a Renoir nude.

In the end though, the only person who seemed genuinely shocked was China Chow, in a little dress with a skirt that resembled an umbrella, who exclaimed “that is my dress and that is my collar” when she looked at Peregrine’s comment on contemporary fashion, “Herpes for Chanel.”

In the late nineteenth century, the avant-garde were inspired by the poet Charles Baudelaire’s putative cry to épater les bourgeois, to shock and upset the comfortable assumptions of the middle class. A growing sense that modern art should disorient, dismay and disturb, shifted art from its role as an expression of shared values to an outcry against the status quo.

This very notion of shock, however, has become the status quo for contemporary art. Scatological language, violence and pornographic sexuality, and the emperor seen in his full and glorious nakedness just aren’t shocking any more. Distasteful, possibly; puerile, certainly; boring, absolutely.



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