Much of the art of the last century or so did more than surprise their audiences. It shocked them, usually by design. You can think of any number of examples: Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, and so on. These are all first-rate artists, and I have no wish to criticize any of them. Duchamp’s “Fountain,” of 1917, had a point, and so did Warhol with his “Campbell’s Soup Cans” of 1962. There are countless examples like this, of artists making statements in their work that are provocative and sometimes more than provocative. Their works had something to say and demanded our attention. What they were saying, each in their own way, hadn’t been said before, or not like that. This kind of art is far from beautiful; it’s more interesting than that. It speaks, it shows something, usually something that calls for a lot of interpretation. None of it is, or was, mainstream. These two things—art’s power to speak and its being new and surprising—are not unrelated.
As for what they had to say, this depends of course on which artist and which work of art we’re talking about. Modern art is about as diverse and complex as modern philosophy is, and the histories of the two in many ways run parallel. Like philosophy, art has long had its avant-garde, those who see themselves as breaking new ground and who have a certain impatience for old forms and styles. You can admire the old masters while regarding the old ways themselves as stale or irrelevant to the times, and when this happens an artist feels the need to strike out in a new direction. We’ve seen a lot of that over the last century or so. When a given artist sets out to provoke, to disturb, or to shock, why are they doing it? For any number of reasons, but a few of the more common ones are to challenge complacency, hypocrisy, taboos, or authority, to engage in some social commentary in a way not so different from what many philosophers do. Artists and philosophers alike are thinkers who are working in a particular form, movement, or tradition, and much of their thinking is a reflection on the times in which they’re living. When the times call for provocation, it falls to the thinker of whatever kind to provoke. And provoke they have—repeatedly, in a thousand ways, and for a long time now.
Consider Duchamp’s “Fountain.” What was the point of putting a mass-produced, upside-down urinal, which he bought at a hardware store, in an art exhibition? Duchamp was saying something important about the nature of art, artists, and interpretation. The notion of the artist as a god-like creator needed to go. This work wasn’t created so much as selected or chosen by the artist, and the work posed a serious conceptual challenge to the very idea of what art is. Does something qualify as a work of art for the sole reason that someone called an artist placed it in an exhibition or a gallery? This work provoked a response that resonated for a good long while and indeed is one of the most influential artworks of the twentieth century, even though you wouldn’t want it in your living room. Nor would you probably want much of Beuys’ work there. Much of his work is provocative as well, although not for provocation’s sake but because of what his works had to say. His art spoke, although its meaning, or meanings, are often more than a little ambiguous. Here again is art that fights “the establishment”—that dreaded thing—and goes in a new and interesting direction.
Countless artists have done likewise and continue to push this envelope about as far as they can. Is it still interesting? Can we be shocked anymore, and if we can, is there still a point in it? Shocking people out of complacency, or whatever it is, has a point when complacency is the norm, but is it anymore, or has shock become the new normal—at least in the world of art and probably not only there? When you go to a gallery today, what do you see, and also what do you expect to see? How much of it really grabs you, and how much seems contrived and pat? When it begins to look like everyone is trying to outflank everyone else on the shocking extreme, it isn’t working, just as when certain philosophers or entire schools of philosophy constantly try to outflank each other on the far left, it’s not interesting. Yesterday it had a point, or it might have. Today it’s a pose. Shock art, for a while, had a point to make, which wasn’t merely or to be, or to appear, avant-garde but to express something that needed to be expressed. Now it’s mainstream and has been for a while.
If it’s contrived to provoke, it isn’t provocative. It’s contrived. And if it’s made to be shocking, chances are it isn’t, not anymore. The provocative and shocking has become mainstream, safe, and predictable—in a word, boring. Good art has some truth to it, and truth isn’t always shocking, provocative, or disturbing. What matters is whether art speaks, and speaks the truth. What I look for in a work of art isn’t much different than what I look for in a work of philosophy: it should have something to say. What it says may have been said before and almost always has been in some form or other, but not in this way. It’s bound to draw upon influences and to rework some old themes, but if it’s good it shouldn’t be excessively derivative but only moderately so. If there’s nothing surprising here, it’s not likely to hold anyone’s attention for long. The first time something is said, it’s interesting, or it might be; the tenth time, it isn’t. This isn’t to say that everything new is interesting or that artists should express only what’s new and for newness’s sake. There’s an enormous amount of old art that continues to hold meaning and to speak to us through the ages. My point is that when something like provocation, shock, or anything else becomes a formula, it becomes moribund and loses its power to command attention. Great art grabs us, draws us in, and keeps us coming back—not because it’s shocking but because it says something. It doesn’t have to please or to entertain, but it does have to speak the truth in the sense of reveal what something is or what it means. Anything that’s formulaic is incapable of this. It becomes art by the numbers, and it’s not merely derivative, it’s dull. It may have been radical in its early days, but sometime later it begins to resemble an aging hippie.
Shock art, or so it seems to me, has reached this point. I’m not an artist, but I do have a plea for those who are: please stop trying to shock us. We get the point. It has been made and remade. Go back to saying what’s true—which will sometimes unsettle and provoke, but surely not always. What else have you got? You don’t need to return to the old styles, but maybe the time has come for a new one, some new form of expression that’s not quite so safe and predictable. This kind of art, in the beginning, was the opposite of safe and predictable, but that was then. Yesterday’s avant-garde is today’s rear-guard. Elvis Presley was also provocative in his early days—all those pelvic thrusts—but a couple of generations later, recording artists who strut their stuff or use sex appeal to sell records are, once again, boring. Usually that’s all they have. Elvis didn’t use it as a formula, and he didn’t need to do that at all. He had the songs; sexing it up was just window dressing. If you’ve watched many music videos lately, window dressing is mostly what you see. You now sometimes hear female recording artists who started out in the 1960s or ‘70s calling on their younger counterparts to let the music speak rather than their bodies, and I would second the motion. In 2018, there’s nothing remotely provocative or shocking about sex. We’ve seen it all before, so please keep your clothes on and write some good songs.
There’s a lot of great art being made today, and in a wide variety of forms. When it works, it retains its ability to surprise and at times to provoke, not for its own sake but because of what it has to say. Good art is many things, but predictable isn’t one of them.