I have great trouble with the attitudes of contemporary artists who feel their chief function as an artist is to shock the lay public. This same public can bite you back when it comes to public art paid for by citizen taxpayer. This desire to shock actually paid off in a big way for those artists who discovered that people who could afford it would pay big bucks for the most outrageous stuff they could come up with. This attitude comprises more than a need to shock strangers, it is inspired by the contempt these artists feel toward the remainder of humanity. On top of that, this contempt shapes the character of the created piece. Great art can initially shock but that is not the central ingredient of its enduring value. I am still listening to Stravinsky “Rite of Spring” and had the pleasure of traveling to Madrid where I observed Picasso’s “Guernica”, both now hailed as lasting masterworks of the last century. I do not think either Stravinsky or Picasso would claim that their chief motivation in doing what they did was to do something as silly and superficial as to reduce their art to a stunt devised to shock strangers. They are also very good examples of those innovative artists who created daring new approaches to their art, yet also possessed great talent and discipline, with a vision of creativity that went beyond making their art into an insult.
Let me provide you a few concrete examples. Michael Kammen, in his book, “Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture”, describes the issue of the proper role of art in a political democracy placed next to the ambiguity and diversity of much of modern art. He makes the point that most lay people are not used to figuring out and selecting the possibilities of multiple meanings in artwork. That task is difficult enough for the innocent and naive public, but then to have artists insist that their role is to regard the potential observer as adversary – and the purpose of their art to shock and offend that observer/adversary. Once the function of culture was that the arts and humanities were to ennoble and enrich humanity. When was that central legacy of Western civilization abandoned? What has been the cost and consequences of that abandonment? Doesn’t art that contains as content contempt for intended observers dis-empower those observers?
Kammen provides anecdotes about a few artists who became quite successful in doing what I just described,
“One might even argue that the common denominator – a constant – during the swift shift from one ‘ism’ to the next has been the desire to shock. Looking back to his brazenly tongue-in-cheek painting titled Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953), Larry Rivers explained that ‘I was energetic and egomaniacal and what is more important, cocky and angry enough to want to do something no one in the New York art world would doubt was disgusting, dead, and absurd.’ Roy Lichtenstein remarked in an interview that ‘the problem for a hopeful scene-making artists in the early sixties was how best to be disagreeable. What he needed was to find a body of subject matter sufficiently odious to offend even lovers of art.’ So he opted for the commonplace: comic book images. Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg insisted that ‘if the painting doesn’t upset you, it probably wasn’t a good painting to begin with.’ Abstract sculptor George Sugarman, whose Baltimore Federal raised a ruckus in that city during the later 1970s, asked rhetorically: ‘Isn’t controversy part of what modern art is all about?’ Performance artist Karen Finley asserted in 1990, as the case of the NEA Four unfolded, ‘That’s what art is about – its shock value.”
I do not contend that this is damning testimony about the aesthetic value of these artists. All those mentioned here are serious artists and most have done important and enduring work and contributed much to our culture. I have varying enthusiasm as reactions to their results but that has only to do with my own temperament and tastes. But still I think their comments are revealing of an attitude and approach to art that I maintain cannot be healthy or ultimately good for the culture. I declare my affinity and solidarity for the affirmative benefits of human culture and civilization. To delight in disfiguring the artifacts in such a way that it provides only the “disgusting, dead, and absurd” is to conclude that all human civilization is decadent, diseased and doomed. I can look at the wars, genocides, and mass starvation of my time on earth and agree that we have amassed considerable evidence to support that position. But to surrender to that hopeless perspective is to make human culture a fatal causality of all those calamities. Culture becomes a collection of pathologies and all our behaviors, including our creative ones, becomes symptoms of a terminal sickness endemic to the human species.
I totally disagree with all the statements of the various artists above. Despite my own reservations about the motivation and intent of some of these artists, I do not have patience or sympathy for those offended who seek to suppress the offensive art. I would never be so silly as to seek to ban that which offends me. I do not wish to define what art is really art and seek to force my conclusions on others. I do not support censorship of the arts, either in the visual image, the dramatic performance, or the content of the text in literature. I further support government sponsorship of public art, all of which will offend somebody, maybe even me on occasion.
I have about completed a book, “The Measure of Our Days: New Beginnings at Life’s End” by Jerome Groopman, M.D. Groopman is a physician, involved as both medical clinician and researcher, who specializes in the worst cases brought about by diseases like cancer and aids. He spends much of his time treating terminally ill patients, trying to find some combination of medicine and personal regime that might give them a few more years to live. Each chapter deals with a real patient that he had once treated. In one chapter Dan, a medical colleague, becomes seriously ill. Dan wanted to do everything possible to live. He talked to Groopman about his father, an Auschwitz survivor, and related that his father had told him that when a person in that concentration camp surrendered to despair, he would die. And that if he survived by becoming an angry animal who stole crusts of bread and bowls of soup from others, then he died inside as a human being. His father explained that just as there were these two types of death, there are also two types of life. One was trying to live a moral life as a moral person and the other was to help others do the same. These thoughts lead Groopman to the following ruminations.
“I searched my memory for the connection between the ordinary and the extraordinary, how there was an alchemy that transmuted the mundane into the sacred. It came to mind. Again, it was a story from the Holocaust, the story told by Prima Levi, the Jewish Italian chemist, who used the transmutability of the elements as a metaphor to explain the radical change in the substance of his life when enslaved by the Nazis. He wrote that it was the performing of the ordinary things that had sustained his sanity, his dignity, his humanity in hell’s inferno. The Nazis systematically dehumanized their victims, asserting they were subhuman, without freedom or choice, and not deserving of life. Levi recounted how, when he was close to despair and considering giving in to death, he was instructed by a comrade in camp to wash his face every day. This ordinary and simple act restored dignity and structure to his person, because he exercised his will to do it, and it was a conscious choice. Levi also found that sustaining the life of the mind in the senseless world of the concentration camp gave him strength. With another friend, he regularly recited verses from Dante, as he had before his enslavement. He had chosen to introduce beauty in the form of poetry in a place where beauty was not meant to exist. Levi believed the greatest form of resistance was to continue to act in the ordinary, normal ways that had marked one’s life before the deportation. It demonstrated a sense of control, an exercise of will, and signaled the potential to triumph over the forces that sought to destroy you. With restoration of dignity came a renewed capacity to hope.”
There is much to consider here. How can people even try to lead ordinary lives when confronted with extraordinary peril and degradation? The ability to wash one’s own face in such conditions is an act of defiance that also supports one’s dignity and humanity. As long as some modicum of choice exists or is willed to exist, then one is not totally without freedom. Yes, Groopman, I share your agonizing grief, “The Nazis systematically dehumanized their victims.” Can art do the same thing? If the purpose of that art is calculated to only offend, to shock, to alienate the engaged observer, to mock everything important to that person, can there not be serious dehumanizing effects on that person? I can fully support critical or contentious art that challenges conventions and the status quo. I cannot support art that deliberately seeks to dehumanize those human beings that unfortunately come in contact with the noxious artifact.
I am sure you must resonate with Groopman’s story about how Levi was able to sustain the life of the mind by reciting the poet Dante, by introducing “beauty in the form of poetry in a place where beauty was not meant to exist.” Should not art play a role in empowering people with the will and potential to triumph over the forces that seeks to destroy them? Does being modern require one not to care about what Groopman and Levi cared about? I fear that too often it is. What have we lost and when did we lose it? I fear that what we have lost in the arts has nothing to do with realism or abstraction, nothing to do with expression or skill, nothing to do with concept or completed artifact. What I fear we have lost in the arts is the determined urge to celebrate our humanity.