ART THAT SHOCKED THE WORLD
The text opening the last chapter titled ‘Transgressions’ brings out two important points: First of all “for centuries, all aesthetic activities were structured according to explicit canons. Artists had only a limited amount of freedom or autonomy, their work being rigorously controlled by the Church or the State, the academy or patrons.” Even though Romanticism brought a huge liberation and changed the status of the artist giving them much more freedom of expression, given how many works still trigger controversies, one might think that the controllers are still there.
Secondly the reasons for stormy clouds over artists’ heads have changed over the centuries: “While artists previously attempted to expand the field of representation by overstepping the boundaries of conformity and convention, they now deliberately attempt to provoke. Scandal pays off.” Today scandal is synonymous with success, as authors stress it, “I shock, therefore I am” they paraphrase. Provocation is attractive, also financially.
The succulent panorama is outlined by 70 works of art with stormy histories gathered by Elea Baucheron and Diane Routex that range from historical perspective, through modern examples to contemporary cases. To mention just a few: Masaccio’s Adam and Eve were too realistic to be religious subjects, the same as the portrait of Innocent X painted by Velazquez with its obvious lack of idealization; Millet and Caillebotte were rejected due to subjects of their paintings considered offensive or even vulgar; Piero Manzoni provocatively canned his own excrement and sold it at excellent price; Maurizio Catellan showed Hitler kneeling in prayer in the old Warsaw Ghetto; Damien Hirst covered a cast of human scull with diamonds.
This book is not only a source of many stories behind uncomfortable works of art but also an interesting read on breaking taboos in art over the centuries. While some of them are more convincing than others, they’re all rather unsettling. We could of course add Zbigniew Libera’s LEGO concentration camp set or controversial Benetton’s campaigns by Oliviero Toscani but the stories collected aptly by the authors give a lot to think about issues that are particularly difficult to define clearly nowadays – when pushing the limits can be considered controversial, who determines what is morally offensive or oversteps conventions etc.
Interestingly some initially disputable projects turn into new concepts for exhibiting art that are both inspirational and refreshing, like the idea of displaying contemporary artists in Versaille, also described in the book. Jeff Koons, Bernard Venet, Takashi Murakami or Joana Vasconcelos showed their works in Versaille (this year it’s Lee Ufan) to the accompaniment of fierce debates but the clash of history and newest creations seems to be somehow beneficial for both. The result of this combination is startling. I read earlier today something along these lines: ‘Art should disturb the comfortable & comfort the disturbed’. Some artists are indeed ‘Shockaholics’ but many simply want to break the rules to provoke our reflection and not let anyone remain indifferent.