Are we shocked or Are we bored?
The latest pop culture debate involves Nicki Minaj’s new video. The video involves a large amount of Nazi meets S&M meets Superhero imagery. Salon’s Erin Keane correctly calls this out as “best as selective memory and at worst, like trolling.”
Trolling and shocking for the sake of shocking in art is not new. The French Decadent Poets rallied around the cry of “Épater Le Bourgeois” which can be roughly translated into Shock the Middle Classes. The big issue for me is that all of this is getting more and more boring.
Art can still have the power to shock and shock sincerely. When I was in my second year of graduate school, we did a play festival. A female colleague directed a play called 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane. 4:48 is allegedly the time Kane’s depression caused her to wake-up. The play contains the female lead saying the word “C–t” and a woman in the audience got up and walked out immediately upon hearing that word. This was a shocking act because Sarah Kane is being utterly sincere in her emotional despair and struggles with Clinical Depression. Sarah Kane committed suicide and if there is one thing that can be picked up from her plays, it is the fact that Sarah Kane was damned not to have a long and happy life. Suicide, Despair and Depression are inescapable facts when dealing with the work of Sarah Kane and she confronted it head on.
I think the problem is that as society gets more liberal, it becomes harder and harder to artists to shock sincerely. When Elvis was young, his hip gyrations were so shocking that he was filmed from the waist up on TV. Mick Jagger was forced to change “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” on TV during the late 1960s.
We have come a long long way from this very innocent era. Cable used to be cool and interesting because you could show things on it that were beyond the pale for mainstream TV. Now there is a lot of stuff on mainstream TV that is rather graphic both in comedy and in drama.
I think this is good for society overall but potentially very bad for art and artists. There seem to be a lot of artists who are stuck in the shock for the sake of shocking mode and this often comes across more like they never grew up from being 7th graders. I am thinking of Paul McCarthy and his Christmas Tree Butt Plug. As my brother said in the original thread you can almost hear McCarthy’s thought process as being “Aren’t I being a shocking and naughty boy? Look at how daring I am by making a Christmas Tree look like a Butt Plug?” I think if an undergrad art student were to produce something similar, he or she would be accused of his or her professors and fellow students of being immature and dull.
This raises the question about why do many artists still have an attraction to Nazi imagery. I think the unique Evil of the Nazis is well-known and they do still have the power to shock sincerely based on the amount of carnage, damage, and terror they caused. How would we react today if we say someone walking down the street in an SS uniform and/or wearing some kind of Swastika (it could be a necklace, a tattoo, or an armband). I imagine that most people would probably stare but also stay a bit away. We still equate the Swastika with a capacity for great violence. There was a scandal in the art world several years ago when the Strange revealed that Charles Krafft was a true believer in neo-Nazism and White Supremacy. Krafft became famous for his disasterware series which featured Ak-47s and other weapons done as delftware. The Disasterware series often incorporated images of Hitler and many collectors and museums thought the Nazi imagery was meant to be ironic. There was sincere shock when it turned out the imagery was sincere and Krafft was cackling about pulling one over by liberals.
As always, I end with questions. 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?
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.
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