Are we shocked or Are we bored?

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64 Responses

  1. Burt Likko says:

    I’ve not seen the Minaj video and am highly unlikely to seek it out. So I don’t want to comment on it specifically.

    My short answer about “Épater Le Bourgeois” is that as an artistic objective, it’s a tedious proposition from the get-go. If the only objective of the art is to shock my sensibilities, then it’s little different from pornography. I can get behind art that is shocking and emotionally challenging if it identifies something from the culture for criticism. Robert Mapplethorpe’s work shocks (or at least, shocked) viewers but at the same time challenges cultural taboos about the subject matter of his photographs; but Paul McCarthy’s Christmas Tree Butt Plug conflating the holiday with sexual behavior says nothing meaningful to me about either Christmas or sexuality.Report

    • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Was that what McCarthy was going for? That’s more insightful than I gave him credit for… (shades of Saturnalia, after all).Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:

      To be somewhat fair, when the phrase was originally coined, there was a lot more official censorship and a lot more prudishness out there. This sort of prudishness really did not undergo massive liberalization until the 20th century and then it happened in varying waves. Lady Chatterly’s Lover was banned in England until the 1960.

      There was also a lot of stuff that was still considered shocking when I was a kid. The Simpsons were considering shocking when they first went on the air in the late 1980s. Now they seem rather conservative and I can’t believe that people made much hey about it but Simpsons T-shirts were one of the few items banned from my elementary school. Interestingly no one cared in middle school that my favorite t-shirt said “Welcome to New York” and featured the chalk outline that police do for dead bodies. Well adult did give me a lecture on “lowest common denominators”. No one cared that my favorite t-shirt as a high school freshman said Sid Vicious is dead. And Tipper Gore’s attack on music lyrics was not too long ago.

      But yeah, I do meet artists from time to time who have an “Épater Le Bourgeois” and they often come across as being not very bright or very creative. Of course my dismissal might just mark me as a member of the Bourgeois which might explain my clashes with others from time to time based on my outlook.Report

  2. Doctor Jay says:

    I think that when it comes to determining sincerity, there’s an unavoidable component of subjectivity, which is based on a person’s life experience.

    That is, The Who’s “Squeeze Box” seems juvenile and petty, whereas when Daltrey sings “who the fuck are you?” in “Who Are You?” it seems sincere. Because people said that, even then. Not in polite company, but they did say that, and one of the jobs of art is to pull back the veil on private life. But that’s my impression. I’m sure that there were people back then that didn’t hear a lot of people saying things like “who the fuck are you” in private life, and were shocked by it.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Doctor Jay says:


      I think you are right on the subjectivity. I subjectively feel that Sarah Kane is sincere and Charles McCarthy is not. The same also goes for Charles Krafft being sincere but that is a darker and more twisted sincerity than the sincerity of Sarah Kane’s struggles with mental illness.

      You are also spot on when it comes to pulling back the veil and revealing the hypocrisies between how we act in private v. public. See the Age of Innocence as a prime example.Report

  3. greginak says:

    At this point in my life shocking is boring. That is good in general. Just shocking someone is not much of an achievement and will rarely, if ever, actually make good art. And that shock will not likly age well given how fast standards change. Shocking is great for getting attention especially with a media that loves to cover contrived events like videos with nazi gear. But shock itself= meh.

    A few years ago i was in a local quik e mart getting a bucket o’fluid and saw a guy wearing a shirt designed to look like a concert t shirt. However it was something like 2 SS Panzer Div European Tour, then it listed various countries invaded by the nazis. I briefly thought of getting myself a 86 oz soda and distractedly running into him. But i’m not very confrontational in general and that would be petty. Just telling him he was a jerk would probably make him feel good for getting a reaction. If i saw him today, i imight try to share a bonding moment about how many nazis my dad and uncles helped kill.Report

  4. Murali says:

    one of the jobs of art is to pull back the veil on private life

    Really? The renaissance artists didn’t think so. William Blake didn’t think so. Neither did Turner or the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Pulling back the veil on private life is a particular 20th century western European affectation. The post-modernists rightly point out that this modernist conceit is just nonsense on stilts. Their way of doing this may be often tasteless, but that is the point. Modernist art is pretentious bullshit and as long as the public takes its modernist aspirations too seriously, it is going to get trolled.Report

    • EB in reply to Murali says:

      Whatever else may be true about modern art, in the sense you’re discussing it is literally the opposite of pretentious. It is obsessed with the exposure of pretense. That’s what “pulling back the curtain” is all about.Report

      • Murali in reply to EB says:

        There is a certain lack of self awareness here. Attempting to pull back the curtain makes sense only if it is an interesting fact about us that our private and public selves are different. But, saying that is banal. Does the curtain need pulling back? Why? Why are artists the ones to do this? Can we know that they’ve done this? How? Perhaps the curtain is meant to be there.Report

      • Kim in reply to EB says:

        to put a bit more focus on artists… I care if they’re pedophiles or not. I care /why/ they draw what they do.Report

    • Doctor Jay in reply to Murali says:

      You know, I chose my words carefully when I said “one of the jobs”. Not “the job”. Nobody is forced to take up this particular charge. Nor should anybody be forced to think that the only acceptable subjects are those subjects painted by the Dutch Masters.

      And of course there’s a lot of pretension in art. There always has been. Art is impossible without a certain arrogance. You think there isn’t pretension in Michaelangelo’s David? There is a lot of work that has nothing but pretension, and it will fade away pretty quickly.Report

  5. Glyph says:

    Minaj is following a pop tradition. Bowie, Banshees and Joy Division (amongst others) played around with Nazi/fascist imagery.

    To be fair, they all repudiated it pretty thoroughly (Bowie claimed, convincingly, that he was coked out of his ever-lovin’ mind).Report

    • Murali in reply to Glyph says:

      That, kids, is why you should not do drugsReport

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Glyph says:

      More seriously,

      The Atlantic article notes that this is a tradition but it seems to be one that is increasingly done without thought. The director seems to have thought about it but I am not sure most musicians do. Joy Division might be a rare exception considering they took their name from a series of novels by a Holocaust survivor.

      But the fact that Bowie didn’t think about until he was really high on drugs is interesting to me. He needed to be gobsmacked to make it past the taboo and this is David Bowie we are talking about…Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I found it interesting that the linked article does not mention the director (Jeff Osborne) once. Minaj, who likely had very little creative control over the video, has since apologize. Osborne has defended the work.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        The Salon article notes what you are noting.

        And I disagree with the idea that Minaj lacked authority and agency over the video. I think it is possible and probable that she listened to a bunch of directors make their pitches and made the final selection.Report

      • trizzlor in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Thanks for pointing this out Kazzy. After reading Armstrong’s statement “First, I’m not apologizing for my work, nor will I dodge the immediate question. The flags, armbands, and gas mask (and perhaps my use of symmetry?) are all representative of Nazism.” I actually have some new-found respect for the guy, at least he’s not playing us for idiots by pretending the imagery was accidental. On the other hand, his actual explanation of the work:

        “I think its actually important to remind younger generations of atrocities that occurred in the past as a way to prevent them from happening in the future. And the most effective way of connecting with people today is through social media and pop culture. So if my work is misinterpreted because it’s not a sappy tearjerker, sorry I’m not sorry.”

        And the way he wraps himself in the 1st Amendment comes off as petty and amateurish. Honestly, I would have preferred a bad-boy trying to freak out squares, at least there’s no pretension there; this guy thinks he’s shining the light of conscience on an important subject but his artist statement sounds like the 30 second answers Miss American contestants give. The worst part is something tells me this guy will never miss a meal.Report

    • dhex in reply to Glyph says:

      throbbing gristle!Report

  6. Damon says:

    BORING and / or distasteful.

    I recently played Farcry 3. The amount of f bombs in the cut scene audios was amazing. Of course, I have no idea if 20-ish year olds actually talk like this, but my response was: really? this doesn’t maintain the suspension of disbelief. It really got annoying after a while.Report

  7. Barry says:

    Glyph November 11, 2014 at 2:45 pm
    “On the other hand, he DID get to be David Bowie….”

    That would make up for a lot of hangovers, and waking up naked in strange places, …Report

  8. LeeEsq says:

    The ability to shock the bourgeois requires that you have a middle class capable of being shocked. One of the consequences of the hippies encouraging everybody to embrace their inner freak is that its getting more difficult to do this. When thinks like BDSM and polyamory or grown men liking cartoons and toys for little girls is out in the open than its really not hard to shock the bourgeois because most middle class people no longer maintain a sense of propriety as a class marker. Artists need to go into some very deep and ugly places to shock people in the developed world and that could either be illegal, beyond the artist’s capabilities because they aren’t that smart or creative, or both.Report

    • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Well, I thought R100 was shocking. And I thought the performances of the actors in the movie, showing they were shocked, showed a remarkable degree of verisimilitude.Report

  9. Jaybird says:

    Something to consider: we look back at the moral scolds from years ago with laughter.

    I’ve got books that explain that rock and roll is satanic, D&D is satanic, Smurfs are satanic… time passes and we look back and snicker and then say “oh, the stuff we’re scolding now is totally worth screaming about.”

    For the record, I’m not really that worried about the Nazis gaining a foothold anywhere. I don’t see Nicki Minaj as the first pebble in an avalanche of a new militarism.Report

  10. Chris says:

    I still find the fact that you aren’t on Twitter and loving it utterly baffling.Report

  11. Kolohe says:

    From the fark thread and just looking at the still, I think like they do – it’s just a bad rip off of The Wall.Report

  12. Chas M says:

    There are probably at least two kinds of “shock” we should acknowledge when we talk about it in terms of that produced by artists in our age: the first we could call the “shock of alienation” and the other perhaps the “shock of identification”.

    A critic/viewer would identify with alienation shock when confronted with a work that pushes the boundaries of his or her moral tastes, that is, goes beyond that which the viewer identifies as “proper” or “moral.” Elvis, Bart Simpson, “Piss Christ,” likely the video under consideration and, for some, the entire history of modern art since 1880, fall under this banner. Art produced to effect this shock is probably, though not always, mass market, shallow and “insincere,” as noted above. This is art that means to push boundaries, perhaps as it’s sole intention. It is what most of us mean when we discuss “shocking” art.

    Identification shock is what we feel when the art ropes us, the audience, and by implication society, into responsibility for the depicted immorality. This type of shock has a long history in theatre, and a somewhat more spotty history in film. Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening,” the plays of Ibsen and Brecht, and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” are some examples. It’s a harder trick to pull off on canvas, but I’d argue Bacon qualifies, as does “Guernica” and “Piss Christ.” Art that is able to utilize the shock of identification in it’s audience is more likely to be though of as “high art,” but is no less to be threatening to the social fabric and therefore denounced by all that is good and decent (even if, especially if, it points to an unjust truth).

    I think the only time I’ve ever been close to being “shocked” in both the above senses was while attending performances of Reza Abdoh’s “The Hip-Hop Waltz of Euridice” and “Boogyman” in Los Angeles in the early 1990’s. The former dealt with alienation, gender identity, religion, oppression and paranoia at the end of the millennium, and the later additionally focused on sexual identity and the crisis of AIDS (which the author/director succumbed to a few years later).

    Both works were loud, textually and structurally dense and confrontational. They were quite upfront about their alienation shock values: gender bending, full male nudity, etc. But the identification shock was quite clear as well. This was a time and place (the LA theatre scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s) that had been devastated by the plaque, and these works served up to the rest of *us* the consequence in human suffering our shame and ignorance had wrought.

    Of course, I’ve never been “shocked” by something I’ve seen on a screen, a wall or a stage. I am quite shocked enough by what I read in the news daily of what we do to one another in the real world.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Chas M says:


      Thanks for you very well thought out comment. Now for the quibbles 🙂

      “Art produced to effect this shock is probably, though not always, mass market, shallow and “insincere,” as noted above. This is art that means to push boundaries, perhaps as it’s sole intention. It is what most of us mean when we discuss “shocking” art.”

      Largely agreed but I think as Lee points out that this kind of art depends on a middle-class or large segment of the population that can be shocked. Some of the Boomers were shocked by the music that their kids were listening to even if they thought their parents being shocked by rock n’ roll was lame. It is hard to shock with alienation when you have Generation X and Millennial parents who think it is cool to dress their kids in Ramones and Velvet Underground t-shirts or when going to an rock festival becomes a family activity. Subcultures are going mainstream or at least openly public. I don’t think even Evangelicals are doing the shock and outrage thing anymore or as much as they did in the 80s and 90s. Liberalism has largely won these aspects of the culture wars.

      The biggest problem with the video is that it has been done before as others have noted. There is nothing new under the sun with alienation shock.

      “Identification shock is what we feel when the art ropes us, the audience, and by implication society, into responsibility for the depicted immorality. This type of shock has a long history in theatre, and a somewhat more spotty history in film. Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening,” the plays of Ibsen and Brecht, and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” are some examples.”

      I largely agree but I don’t think I would include Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner here. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is basically the start of Hollywood Oscar Bait liberalism that lets certain parts of the audience feel good about themselves while pretending to attack society. It is telling that Sidney Portier’s character was basically a saint in that movie. The indictments found in Mother Courage and Her Children or The Good Woman of Sichuan by Brecht and A Doll House or Ghosts by Ibsen are more damning. Maye a better movie example would be The Ox-Bow Incident or Network or The Sorrow and the Pity.

      Literature is also good for identification shock like The Age of Innocence and House of Mirth by Edith Wharton or The Turn of the Screw or What Maisie Knew by Henry James.

      ‘It’s a harder trick to pull off on canvas, but I’d argue Bacon qualifies, as does “Guernica” and “Piss Christ.”’

      I think the issue with painting (maybe more than other genres) is that paintings that are shocking at the time (for technique and/or content) become masterpieces later. Turner’s The Slave Ship is a good example. It was damned by the critics originally but is now seen as a late masterpiece. Of course it was a hot and political piece at the time of release and it did damn the whole of society.

      I think it is also interesting that you included Piss Christ in both categories. There are artists like Brecht who float between both kinds of shock. After all, “alienation technique” is important to Brechtian technique and Brecht probably did it get off with being considered the bad boy of Weimar theatre until the Nazis forced him into exile. Brecht-Weil songs were the shocking rock songs of their day. Lars von Trier tries to do identification shock but always ends up doing alienation shock and it is boring more often than it is interesting. Damien Hirst falls into a ground where I can’t tell whether he is just trolling really rich people or not.

      I don’t know if I’ve ever been shocked by a work of art or performance but I have been disturbed or pushed into contemplation.

      “This was a time and place (the LA theatre scene of the late 80?s and early 90?s) that had been devastated by the plaque”

      I think you mean the plague but I am sure that many dentists work hard to prevent places from being devastated by the plaque. My dentist warns against the plaque all the time.Report

      • Chas M in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I agree with Lee’s sentiment that one needs a shockable audience in order to shock them, so yes most use of Nazi imagery is trolling (Banksy’s ‘Thrift Shop Painting’) but leather Nazi Dominatrix’s are basically a music video trope by now, so neither shocking nor trolling.

        I’ll sort of concede the “Dinner” thing, but I was reaching for a late code-breaking film that could be “shocking” in that sense at the time. I’ll take Network though.

        And yes, about 70% of the appeal of Hirst or Koons (if there is any appeal at all) is that they are trolling rich people and why Hirst (but not Koons) is in both categories.

        Thanks for reminding me to see my dentist regularly!Report

      • Chas M in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Oh, and you totally nailed von Trier. Exactly.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        Maybe Bonnie and Clyde or Midnight Cowboy are better examples then?

        Nazi imagery can still be shocking. I think The Night Porter has the power to rightfully shock. The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis seems to be getting good reviews for the good kind of shock. The Kindly Ones seems to have failed by going too far (though for Nazis this is hard).

        Honestly the most shocking example of Nazi imagery I ever saw was in Japan when I was 20. It was in Harajuku and there was a 20-year old girl with bright pink hair standing around in full SS-Uniform. Harajuku is popular with cosplayers. What is shocking there is that it happened and that there is not a taboo against dressing like a Nazi like there is in the West. I think in the U.S. or Western World everyone would gawk at someone out in public in a full SS uniform.

        I consider Bansky very good at what he or she does. The political comment seems real in Bansky pieces. I’m largely indifferent to Hirst. There are some Koons pieces that I like, Bunny is a good example. I’m turned off and intrigued by his sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles. Though Serra is my man when it comes to sculpture.

        Honestly the art that intrigues me more now goes for compassion more than cruelty and sympathy over an attack. The films of Kore-eda Hirokazu, later Kurosawa, and Francois Truffaut come to mind. And I much prefer Truffaut and Rohmer to Goddard (though Masculine Feminine and Band of Outsiders are great films) So does the theatre of Kushner (who can also let out a really good indictment of what is wrong in society). Caroline or Change is an amazing work.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Chas M says:


      I think a really good movie for the Shock of Identification is Nobody Knows by Kore-eda Hirokazu. Talk about damning;

  13. notme says:

    Who cares?Report

  14. zic says:

    Shock is supposed to shock prevailing sensibilities. Like, I’m constantly shocked by the performance art of one Rush Limbaugh. I was shocked when I first heard him call Hillary Clinton a ‘feminazi,’ and I continue to be shocked that so many people listen to his show and take him seriously. That’s shocking.

    Shocking, in art, is also subtle — how somebody does something that you don’t quite appreciate at first, that only reveals itself as you peel away the flags or focus your attention closer. Art like this confederate flag painting which was removed from exhibition at Gainsville State College. When you waked into the room, you saw this big confederate flag, it took up a whole wall. When you stepped closer, the shocking detail reveals another story. This painting, which really peeved the alumni, triggering it’s removal; was done by a Professor Stanley Bermudez, an artist from Venezuela, teaching at the college, responding to the visual signals he saw that confused his understanding of his new homeland.

    Berumdez, also get’s migraine aura and has a bunch of work based on that visual disturbance; a lot of those paintings look like my worst days. Those should shock you, too.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to zic says:

      Rush Limbaugh probably represents the real way you shock the bourgeoisie these days. You do it by going against the liberal sensibilities that every well-educated, middle-class person is supposed to have.Report

  15. trizzlor says:

    Did you see the Anselm Keifer show at Gogosian? Here’s how the Times described the centerpiece:

    Then there is the show’s heart of darkness: ‘Occupations,’ a large steel shed that evokes box cars, crematoria, barracks or meat lockers. Visible through its many doors, shaggy photographs hang from hooks like enormous pelts. They are the images from Mr. Kiefer’s 1970s world tour of Nazi salutes — blown up and mounted on lead on burlap.

    And to be clear, the “world tour” was Kiefer taking self-portraits of himself doing the Hitler salute in formerly occupied territories, often in his grandfather’s Nazi uniform. I was shocked, but I also thought the show was extremely powerful, and did not once feel that the subject matter was being exploited for cheap thrills or for shallow controversy. The way I see it, shock has to come with a purpose beyond just eliciting a reaction. The art world has long embraced works that are not “pretty”; that horse couldn’t be any deader. And the mainstream culture has long embraced cheap thrills – pornography, slasher flicks, etc. – that are carefully tailored to get a rise. So if an artist has the nerve to operate heavy machinery like Nazi imagery – stuff that comes with a history of millions of lives and an entire literary/art canon surrounding it – they better be aiming for something more than a grindhouse flick.

    I would be all for Nicki Minaj using Nazi imagery to talk about larger patterns of fascism, capitalism, and misogyny through hip-hop. But given that the lyrics have nothing to do with the images and her outright disavowal of any such intent, I’m guessing she just needs a better assistant in charge of her videos.Report

  16. How often are you sincerely shocked by art and how often are you bored by art which is merely trying to be shocking? Do you have any ground rules for determining when art is sincerely shocking or when it is an artist just trying to shock? Do you find Épater Le Bourgeois to be a kind of immaturity?

    Last question first: yes. It had its time and place, perhaps, but shocking for the sake of shocking seems one of those things that’s too easy.

    First question next: I don’t know because it is in part a question of what constitutes “shocked” as opposed to, say, offended. Are they the same thing? I’m not so sure. Here are some case studies:

    I am shocked/offended by Maplethorpe, even though I might have a better view of his work if I actually looked at it or learned more about him or the tradition he was in dialogue with. I’ll just accept the fact that I’m ignorant and too lazy/apathetic to take the time to learn.

    I am offended by the movie “The Aristocrats” the weird subculture of jokes it’s a documentary about. Am I “shocked”? Euh….not really.

    I like “Family Guy” in part because of its shock value. It’s cuts and pop culture references are “shocking” in the sense that they’re very unexpected. (However, a friend of mine says he can’t watch more than one episode every once in a while. If he watches, say, two shows in a row, he the frequent non sequiturs and puns get exhausting for him.) I do find some of “Family Guy” offensive, too, but not usually in a “shocking” way.Report

  17. Chris says:

    I think the trolling theory assumes too much intelligence on the part of those involved in the project. See the director’s explanation to understand why:

    Minaj notes that she didn’t really have anything to do with the concept, though I assume she could have said, “Uh, no.” Though given the way she’s been working her image with her new album, maybe she knew exactly what she was doing by going with it.Report

  18. Rufus F. says:

    I had to think hard about this one to remember times when I was shocked by art. I’ve seen more than a few exploitation or horror films that have aimed at shocks and can only remember a few that genuinely shocked me.

    I have been offended by art, which is a somewhat different experience from being shocked. When I’ve been offended, it’s usually a result not so much of shocking content, but because I found the argument behind the art to be insincere or insidious. Sometimes, the two overlap.

    I don’t really have a problem with shock value in itself- I don’t think it’s immature. It’s just another effect that artists use. If the art has nothing else to it than the shock, that can be puerile. But many times the bourgeoisie has deserved to be shocked.Report