September 21, 2010

Shock Tactics

        Back when I was teaching middle school art I took a couple of classes at MassArt during the summers.  Those classes for art teachers are the only two proper art school classes I’ve ever taken, and I found the glimpse into the Art World Establishment fascinating – and food for much thought.  Today I’m reminded of a comment from an artist and art professor who came in as a guest teacher once.  He conceived of his work as powerfully political, and he said, “If everyone likes your art, something is wrong.”
        There is certainly a place for art and literature that make people uncomfortable and shake us out of our complacency.  Indeed, that’s one of the ways art and literature can make the world a better place.  Consider Picasso's "Guernica" for example, or Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.  But where is the line between a wake-up call and gratuitous shock value?  I’ve never been impressed by comedians whose only joke is to use fouler language than anyone else.  (Although clearly I cannot make the absolute statement, "That's not funny!”)  I’ve never cared for the work of Damien Hirst, or Robert Mapplethorpe, or for the infamous “Piss Christ,” all of which seem more interested in self-advertisement than in accomplishing anything constructive.  It isn’t that I deny their right to make such pieces or that I advocate censoring them.  It’s just that I don’t think such pieces are very good art, and I’m not much interested in viewing things designed merely to shock, outrage, and sicken me or other viewers.
        There are books, too, that hope to whip up sufficient notoriety to become bestsellers.  Furthermore it seems that even in less aggressively controversial works there’s a clear pressure to be edgy, gritty, raw…  In the field of fantasy, and even more in sci fi, I'm thinking of all the dystopian visions of places where Good not only fails to triumph but doesn't even get to be represented by the protagonist.  Apparently, if you want to get taken seriously you have to push the envelope…  But why?  Or more specifically, why is the envelope of ever more extreme sex and violence the one that must be pushed?  Why not push the envelope of wonder, or the envelope of breaking stereotypes, or the envelope of gratitude, or the envelope of creative problem-solving?  Human society is limited by countless conventions in countless directions, so why try to break down the conventions that might keep us from utter brutality when we might instead be trying to break down the conventions that hold us back from becoming better?
        As I was sitting at my table during an Open Studios show once, I overheard a couple strolling by discussing the work.  The woman pointed to one of my block prints of an industrial site and said, “Oh, look.  That’s edgy!”  I had to restrain myself from totally cracking up.  It was the first time, and probably the last time, anyone will ever call my art “edgy.”  Which brings us back to the artist who said, “If everyone likes your art, something is wrong.”  Obviously not everyone likes my art, or my writing, but the people who don’t care for my work are unlikely to be offended by it or made uncomfortable – they probably just find it boring.  Does that mean something is wrong?  No one wants to be thought boring, I suppose, but is boring the only possible alternative to depravity?  Are my only options Damien Hirst or Thomas Kinkade?  If no one is offended by my work does that indicate a lack of depth and an inability to be serious art?  Or is there a place for art and literature that aim for serious joy?

[Picture: February 15, 1999 - Boston Sand & Gravel, rubber block print by AEGN, 1999.]


PAX said...

Let's hear it for "serious joy". There is more than enough depravity on the news. I turn to art and literature to remind me of the finer aspects of human life and effort.

Nan said...

I love "serious joy." Great phrase, Anne.

An instructor once told me that my "gratuitously beautiful" (this said in disappointment) paintings needed was a "swipe of snot" in the lower right corner. I decided to ignore him. But then, no one has ever said I was "edgy." sigh

Keep up the great work!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

(For those who want to see some of Nan's work - which is indeed unreasonably beautiful (!) you can visit her web site Paperwork)
I'm glad you ignored that instructor! I like the thought of gratuitous beauty, like random acts of kindness.