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The Garden

Are Artists Afraid to Be Bold?

The art market booms while the art fizzles. Millionaire artists make disposable objects for billionaire patrons to hide in airport storage spaces. Designer installations move droves to stand in line for selfies yet fail to stir a single soul. What has happened to art and the people who make it? The corrupting influence of extreme wealth. The upheaval of technology that reproduces everything except lived experience. A viral media culture that spreads images faster than even the most conceptual artist can dream them up. This series seeks to examine the different issues that affect contemporary while forging a new path for the digital age.


Art vs. the Cultural Paradoxes of Our Age

Art has survived cataclysmic disasters, barbarian invasions, religious inquisitions, total war, mechanical reproduction and digital upheaval, but can it withstand the cultural paradoxes of our age? Much of art’s power lies not only in formal and aesthetic qualities but also the ability to shock, provoke and occasionally offend. The customer is always right, we are told, yet artists whose patrons held power over life and limb consistently subverted moral standards. In doing so, artists pushed the notion of acceptability forward, reshaped traditional taboos and pushed the line for the future generations to cross.

Wall Art from Pompeii
Origin of the World, Gustave Courbet

Yet where is this line today? With a few keystrokes, viewers can access outrageous pornographies and horrific snuff videos. Thirty years ago, Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotic photos stunned the nation and drove the conversation about sex and sexuality in the ensuing censorship battles. These photos would have a difficult time garnering clicks in a casual search of gay porn images for any reason other than their sheer photographic beauty. Similarly, Chris Ofili’s depiction of the Virgin Mary next to elephant dung, which now hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, pales next to the sacrilege of a cable TV series like South Park, which portrayed a statue of the Virgin Mary bleeding from her anus as a religious miracle (at least until the Catholic hierarchy determines the source of blood as a different and less miraculous orifice).

A Recent History of Controversy

On the other hand, there have been art controversies within recent memory. Several years ago, a portrait modeled on an iconic photographic of the hate crime victim Emmett Till provoked a heated debate. Interestingly, the offensiveness focused more on the background of the artist than the power of the image itself; in other words, the race of the speaker overtook the intended anti-racist statement. As with seemingly so many of our internet driven jeremiads, free speech advocates and provocateurs found themselves at odds with social justice activists and proponents of political correctness. Even religious content isn’t totally free from controversy despite the freewheeling post-internet comments culture. Depictions of the prophet Muhammad can unite devout Muslims and defenders of traditionally marginalized groups in their outrage, even provoking violence as in the terrorist attacks against the Charlie Hebdo publication. Within the last decade at a museum in France, Christian fundamentalists destroyed Andres Serrano’s Immersion (Piss Christ), a dusted off outrage artifact that was contemporaneous with Mapplethorpe’s work.

Artists looking to provoke a reaction find themselves in a unique position. In some ways, it’s more difficult than ever to offend moral sensibilities around subjects like sexuality and drug use. An enfants terrible like Damien Hirst sparks protests from animal rights groups by using dead creatures in his work, but is embalming a shark to anger niche activists the best we can hope for in lieu of shocking the masses? More to the point, does his controversy generate a discourse on humanity’s relationship to animals in the same way that Mapplethorpe’s photos challenged heterosexual standards of beauty or does it simply drive his own publicity as many of his critics claim? However, issues and cultural norms that need rethinking like gender identity and racial consciousness may feel like minefields to artists regardless of whether they belong to a traditionally marginalized group. Even Kara Walker, arguably the preeminent black American female painter, found herself the subject of criticism for her depictions of black American women that drew on antebellum stereotypes and forms.

Not a Bold Artistic Statement

The Path of Most Resistance

The new standards for offense appear fuzzy at best, reflecting the fractured culture. Artists intending to provoke a reaction literally have to kill, while others hoping to make a modest statement can simply choose the wrong subject. The easy path forward would be to avoid stepping on any egg shells, though even this cliché could irk the more extreme animal rights zealots out there. Artistic abstraction, which once upon a time caused an uproar, now feels like the only safe space. Yet artists have always been a vital part of the conversation that helps form our notions of what’s acceptable and what should constitute true outrage. Perhaps the boldest act an artist can perform is to attempt to pick up the pieces of our fragmented cultural standards and refashion them into a beautiful mosaic. One that hopefully manages to piss everyone off.




3 comments

    1. Marquis de Shade ( User Karma: 6 ) says:

      Yeah, it seems like there’s a weird mix of catering to the super rich while also not wanting to offend anyone. Except animal rights people I guess? I’m not a huge Damien Hirst fan so I dunno his deal.

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