Sunday, December 5, 2010

Art as Shock Therapy

Surely, the late 19th century was not the first time that decadent artists discovered they could make a living by shocking the bourgeoisie.

It takes a certain amount of gall to prey off of the insecurities of your patrons, but artists do it all the time, and have done it for centuries.

Such is art, and such is life.

Of course, the pursuit of decadence is a reactionary force in society. The forebears of decadent artists were the aristocrats who did not have to work for a living, who lived comfortably off of their rents, and who had the time and money and leisure to perfect the sensual and sensuous arts.

Bourgeois values like work and decorum,  propriety and respectability seemed to be an affront to everything that decadent artists and aristocrats held sacred.

Around a century and a half ago, Edouard Manet painted his famous picture of “Luncheon on the Grass.” It shocked sensibilities at a level that we will never be able to imagine.

In Manet’s painting a nude woman was turning away from her picnic lunch with two clothed men to join one of her male companions in returning the gaze of someone who seems to have interrupted their festivities.

A naked woman with two clothed men… it affronted dignity and propriety. It mixed sexual and alimentary appetites. It suggested the possibility of two men having their way with one woman, or of one woman having her way with two men.

At a safe historical distance, we are not even remotely shocked by Manet’s painting. Yet, we all know that it was great art. For whatever the reason, the painting provides an aesthetic experience; it is much more than its shock value. 

You cannot, as Eric Felten reminded us yesterday in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, say as much about Duchamp’s work “Fountain,“ a picture of a urinal signed R. Mutt. Link here.

By transporting a urinal from the vulgar space of the men’s public rest room to the semi-sacred space of the museum Duchamp produced a seminal moment in art history.

One suspects that the work has provoked far more art criticism than aesthetic pleasure.

Felten is hardly the first to have noticed, but when artists aim only at shock  value they eventually arrive at the point where nothing is shocking any more. We become perfectly numb, utterly desensitized.

Artists often claim a right to absolute freedom. And yet, the freedom to shock people is anything but absolute. It seems to have its own internal limitations.

In Felten’s words: “But things are so far gone that shock rarely registers in the first place. This is the natural result of decades—the better part of a century, really—of artists using up the public's reservoir of indignation. And if transgressive art can't shock, what does it have to offer? After all, once you've seen Duchamp's ‘Fountain’ and gotten the joke, is there anything worth revisiting in it? Whatever frisson it might once have delivered was used up in its first display. Once the shock is gone, all that's left is a urinal.

“Who knows how long it will take for the one-trick transgressives to realize that they don't have the impact they imagine, and soon may have no impact at all. I look forward to the day when—like the Grinch, straining to hear the boo-hoos from Whoville only to hear singing—the artists who fancied they could shock with their trite antics discover their targets are unperturbed, unfazed and uninterested.”

By noting that some people are in on the joke Felten is suggesting that these offensive images have little aesthetic value, but function to allow a select group of people to feel that they are part of the art world in-crowd.

Duchamp’s urinal is one among many such objects. Lacking aesthetic value, unable to provoke an aesthetic emotion, they seem to be secular versions of religious relics, talismans, sacred objects. Like the Holy Grail....

It is fair to say that no one ever launched a crusade to find the Holy Grail because it had great aesthetic value.

Yet, where believers attribute divine powers to the Holy Grail, no one believes that Duchamp’s urinal will every cure you of more than your bourgeois respectability and good sense.

For art to be art, it needs to attract, interest, and engage the viewer. You are interested and engaged by whatever is or is not going on in Manet’s painting. You are neither interested nor engaged in the composition of Duchamp’s urinal; it’s artistic value lies in its being placed in a museum or gallery, thus in your willingness to ask what it is doing there.

For those who seem to believe in artistic license and who pretend that if only they had complete freedom to express their creativity they would all paint like Manet, the history of art says otherwise.

In the Middle Ages artists did not choose their subject matter. They painted what their papal and ducal patrons wanted them to paint.

Yet, many extraordinary art works were produced at that time. Take the simple example of the three altarpieces of the Enthroned Madonna, that are exhibited in a room of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. If you haven’t seen them, they are well worth the trip.

Painted by Giotto, Duccio, and Cimabue, three of the greatest artists of the time, they are, for all intents and purposes, the same painting. They represent the same theme. They depict the same story.

No matter what your beliefs, no matter what religion you do or do not belong to, they are great art. No one would ever doubt it. However well they embody the sacred, they are aesthetically extraordinary.

As you know, twentieth century totalitarian dictators envied the artistic successes of Christianity. They wanted their own artists to create works that would serve the revolution as well as Giotto and Duccio and Cimabue served Christianity.

The patron saints of Communism were, of course, Marx and Lenin, Stalin and Mao, Che and Ho Chi Minh. In many quarters their images became as iconic as they were ubiquitous. They are not great art.

You might find Andy Warhol’s images of Mao Tsetung visually compelling, but it is essentially a parody of Maoist efforts to make Mao into a great cultural icon. However expensive his paintings, Andy Warhol is not another Giotto.

But why did Communism never produce or inspire great art? Perhaps it was too concerned with trying to force people to believe what it wanted them to believe. Its greatest successes were in the realm of propaganda, not art. 

Communism broke decisively with the Judeo-Christian tradition, not only by deriding the sacred, but in replacing free will with determinism.

You might not think of medieval Christians as basking in the kinds of freedom we routinely enjoy today, but free will has always been as central a doctrine in Christianity as historical determinism has been in Communism.

As for the role of freedom in art, Giotto's example will serve us well. Not only did Giotto break free of the traditions of the Byzantine art and the early Middle Ages, the better to pave the way for the Renaissance, but he did exercise freedom in a famous story told by Giogio Vasari in his: The Lives of the Artists (Oxford World's Classics)

IN 1302 or thereabouts Pope Boniface VIII sent an emissary to Florence to ask Giotto to submit a few drawings as an application for a papal commission.

Giotto took out a sheet of paper and dipped a brush in red paint. He then drew a perfect circle on the paper, freehand. The courtier did not understand and replied: “Is that the only drawing I’m to have.”

Giotto replied: “It’s more than enough…. Send it along and you’ll see whether it is understood or not."

As you might know, the Pope did understand and awarded Giotto the commission. 

Now, imagine an art school where students were taught to draw perfect circles freehand. You would need a great deal of imagination to do so. Nonetheless, we have gotten to the point where, if any artist today were to perform Giotto's feat, that, indeed, would shock the art world.

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