November 15, 2003

Shocking Thoughts

John Rockwell writes in the NYTimes:

?The Chapmans' and Ms. Finley's art may or may not be great, but in the end all art must seek to disturb and provoke. Of course, there are deliberate provocateurs, sometimes for overt careerist ends. But what counts is the art. Great art is always shocking. ?

Well, is it? Is shock an essential condition defining art? It seem so today as the art world has merged with the media/commercial/institutional world.

I read Robert Hughes' ?Shock of the New?* too, and I found it to be a compelling account of the emergence of contemporary art from the mists of history. This book is as good as any other to be the representattive of John rockwell's mindset.

Here?s what I take from Robert Hughes? account, it?s the same story we hear in the darkened slide lecture classrooms of our youth:

1. Once upon a time there was a status quo.
2. Then someone questioned it either overtly or subtly... what was taken as a norm was exhausted
3. And someone went their own way, and everyone followed, eventually forming their own status quo
4. Repeat

In short, society forms a coagulant of patterns and habitude, the fabric of culture. It?s art that rips the scab and keeps life fresh.

Now, it is perfectly reasonable to look at this schema and conclude that the rupture is the art.... especially when you are rewarded by a mediated-super-information-market environment that rewards those who can generate the greatest audience share. But is this the only conclusion?

Shock is tough to manage, it may be best to think of it as a strip tease, lest you bore the audience. If art is shock, then art doesn?t last very long. Art becomes the briefly explosive punctuations in a boring life. But what happens if patterns of rupture become routinized? What happens if methods of shock are extrapolated and exhausted? What happens when it becomes predictable and boring? What then?

Instead of seeing an imperative to shock, I find it helpful to look at the story of art and see what underlies the impulse to shock: the assertion of individual vision, the refusal to conform to the status quo, the courage to go one?s own way. Nonconformism is shocking to the herd because the herd might go another way and you might be left out. We are afraid to be alone and we despise the loner who chooses freely.

I?ve heard once from a friend in grad school another definition of art (Marcus Adams, I?m not sure if this is his creation or he heard this from another): art is that which is presented to others for there aesthetic appreciation. Aesthetics in this case is best understood by a comparison with the term anesthetic, the numbing of the senses. Aesthetics, then is the fullness of the senses.

Art in this approach is the celebration of individual imagination, a democracy of vision. This, the positive alternative to the nihilistic rapids that John Rockwell and the status quo of contemporary art offers, an art of negation. This, an art of affirmation.

In this way, shock becomes an effect and not the cause. Shock will happen anyhow and maybe after all that we have become jaded to, it might be smart these days to look at the more subtle levels to experience the effects of rupture.

Shock becomes a symptom of the art of the West, the discomfort of accommodating the independent individual vision. Art may be shocking, but shock isn't art.

*Robert Hughes, ?Shock of the New?, a lively introduction to the emergence of modern art in the twentieth century...

Posted by Dennis at November 15, 2003 10:20 PM

1 Comment

What is Hugh's doing now? I've always liked him, but don't here about anything currently. Anyway, I like the business of trying to define art. As for myself, I would cling to how bob irwin put it: "as our infinite capacity to see and to asthetically order the world."

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