It comes up over and over in defense of media: It’s provocative. It has shock value. It’s meant to startle. It should make people uncomfortable. People defending art that’s attracted controversy turn to these statements, arguing that art is not supposed to be nice, that sometimes it does make people experience discomfort and unease, and that is part of the point. It’s fulfilling a social function as an object of commentary, rather than something purely aesthetic that people can look at and enjoy because it is pretty and technically well-executed and speaks to them. It is, in short, a social and cultural necessity.
Yet, how valuable is shock value, really? What does provocative art accomplish?
It’s impossible to dismiss an entire genre, to say in a sweeping sentence that all media produced for shock value has a purpose and a function, or to claim that it never has any redeeming value and shouldn’t be a part of society. However, it seems like any kind of interrogation of controversial art is often met with hostility and a retreat behind the shock value rampart, with an insistence that this shields the artist, the creator, the defenders, and other involved with the project inside a giant bubble.
This art, we are told, raises awareness of a social issue. As a friend of mine often says, ‘awareness is not action,’ and simply being aware of something doesn’t translate into action. Especially when people are not precisely sure what they should be aware of, when the message is communicated so poorly that the viewer doesn’t actually engage with it, and doesn’t take anything away from the piece.
At a modern exhibit I went to recently, there were lots of interesting wire bibs and bobs and it was sort of fun to ramble around, but I didn’t think the art increased my awareness of breast cancer, which was ostensibly the purpose. I certainly didn’t leave the exhibit thinking about ways to combat breast cancer, nor did I take any specific anti-breast cancer actions on the basis of my attendance of the exhibit. I went back to my friend’s place and made a sandwich.
That exhibit wasn’t particularly shocking, unless one thinks contorted wire merits pearl clutching, but some shocking art is made with the ostensible purpose of ‘raising awareness.’ Artists can talk about their intent and I like reading artist statements, but I’m also going to read the art on my own. If the artist claims that the intent was to raise awareness and I don’t see it, I’m going to say so. More critically, I’m going to interrogate the claim that raising awareness is necessary or serves an important function; I’d argue that if all you’re doing is raising awareness, you really aren’t doing very much for the cause, especially when it happens in a limited environment like that of a gallery or institution, where attendees are probably already aware.
If a community is already aware, what does awareness accomplish? If your ‘awareness’ efforts are couched in a medium that a potential target audience finds offensive and repulsive, how have you contributed to increased knowledge? If the art stops short at awareness with no advice on the next step, what are viewers supposed to take away from the exhibit?
‘Shock value’ implies some kind of, well, value. It suggests that the art serves a function beyond being art, and I actually don’t think art necessarily needs to have some kind of intrinsic value. I am okay with art just being art, although I also love art that does have value. When, however, people are claiming that art has value, it’s time to talk about what value means, what it looks like, and how it is expressed. If a piece of art is intended to shock and provoke me in order to elicit some kind of social action, has the artist accomplished the goal, or not?
If the goal is simply to shock people, how valuable is that? In some corners of the art world, that’s considered value enough, and when people talk about how art has offended or harmed them; by depicting racist stereotypes, for example, or by exploiting their communities, their criticisms are often dismissed and written off. People seem to have trouble drawing distinctions and lines; when someone produces sacriligeous art, for example, it’s ferociously defended by free speech advocates despite the fact that members of a given religion may find it offensive and may want to talk about it. They may feel that the art does not have value, and their voices should be heard along with that of the artist. That doesn’t mean either side is necessarily right, but it does mean that a conversation needs to happen.
Political art, as a genre, is at the intersection of a number of complex identities and ideals, and it doesn’t always succeed. In evaluating it, we have to look beyond the art itself, because it’s no longer just art, it’s also a statement. Just like other statements, it becomes subject to critical discussion and review, and that criticism may not be particularly friendly. Artists who want to shock and provoke ‘to make a point’ need to think about the point they’re making, and ask themselves about the most effective way to make that point. And they’d better be ready for legitimate blowback, especially when they are speaking on behalf of communities to which they do not belong.
A white artist producing works on racism, for example, might think he’s shocking an audience with racial slurs and caricatures. The people targeted by those slurs and caricatures might feel very, very differently. And they’re going to ask what the ‘value’ of the art is on the basis of that, how it fights racism or raises ‘awareness’ or serves some specific political function beyond being racist; because sometimes it seems to me like ‘shock value’ art is actually just a thin screen that allows people to express their -isms without being held accountable for it.