• Tamarah Webb

Shock art: The name says it all

Step right up, folks! “Shock art”—the name says it all: Works that are bound to leave you amazed. Granted, sometimes when we look at a challenging piece of art we cannot see past our fist shocked impression, so we end up disregarding any meaning or vision. But isn’t the purpose of art to cause emotion, to make you think, to bring attention to an issue and to spread fervor? Sensationalized as shock art, pieces such as Portland-based artist Sarah Levy’s menstrual-blood portrait of Donald Trump in protest of the presidential candidates’ sexist and outrageous comments; Guillermo Vargas Jiménez, also known as Habacuc’s, exhibit of an emaciated dog in a gallery in Nicaragua in 2007; “Piss Christ,” a piece of art by U.S. artist Andres Serrano, and Niki Grangruth and James Kinser’s nude exhibit of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” [“After Picasso”] 2012 are stigmatized, but these pieces will never not be art simply because they shock. The visual appeal of these pieces is less important than the massage behind them.

Art—political and revolutionary, an extension of the self, a movement, a networking facilitator and agent, a language, a communication powerful enough to save lives, the mother of unity and rebellion, emotions portrayed visually, unique and cannot truly be replicated. People sometimes take a morbid and grotesque approach within the realm of art. The pieces shock artists display often start arguments that challenged ethics, and the definition of “true art.” Disputes have sparked regarding the validity that menstrual blood murals, a starving animal exhibit and a figure of Jesus Christ submerged in human urine, can stand as presentations of true art. Instinctively, many people experience discomforts and strong rejections towards not only the art, but also the artists, hence challenging and questioning their authority and qualification as an artist.

On a recent September day, Portland-based artist Sarah Levy used her menstrual blood and a tampon to paint a portrait of 69-year-old Donald Trump after implying Megyn Kelly, was on her period during the Republican debate. As unappealing as a menstrual blood painting is, Levy begs the question: Why not use the most natural by-product of the female body—which Trump views as problematic—to communicate her emotion and view of the candidate? Levy embraces the disdain image of feminine release and uses it to communicate her feelings. Levy tells USA Today, “I heard the comments he made to Megyn Kelly and I was outraged that he was basically using women’s periods not just to avoid a political question, but also to insult her and all women’s intelligence.” Trump expressing outrage, is literally depicted through the blood he joked about, which, in turn, has brought outrage to the American people. Kaboom! Levy ingeniously brings attention to a national issue, and the devotion to her craft is absolute.

Portland-based artist Sarah Levy uses her menstrual blood and a tampon to paint a portrait of Donald Trump

Zero impact could be celebrated if Levy conventionally used red paint. But would she still bring attention to the issue? Of course not, risk is a part of artistry. Who cares about an artist who never takes risks? Better yet, who can grow from a riskless creator? Art must drive and stir up emotions in people. The vision behind a creation must be to make someone feel something; otherwise, the work is meaningless and invisible. Art in general, is becoming more and more dispersed. The rising significance of community-based cultures, the increased targeting of niche markets, the dissolution of the boundaries between high and low cultures and the associated ethic and geographic diversity of audiences have lessened and even delegitimized the need for centralized fascist voices dominating art.

Gradually, decade-by-decade, changes in the way we think and believe have helped growth a working social system. Thanks to evolution, we collaborate on ideas and share thoughts that navigate innovative practices. Art must evolve or atrophy and die. Consumers glean ideas from past creators, illustrators and builders. These innovators speak to us, and influence us to manifest a name for ourselves. Around the world, artists are provided cathartic oases as an escape from the mundane complications of everyday life. Whether we are performing the art, listening or watching, we are constantly incorporating different forms of art into our everyday lives.

By diminishing the role of the artist in the evaluation process—in effect, making the end-user the consumer, the most effective and persuasive arbiter of quality—market-driven culture leaves little room for minority points of view, edginess, difficulty or controversy, whether in the cultural mainstream or sometimes even at its increasingly embattled margins. It is the artist. Conventionally, who often supports or analyzes culture against the grain of popular tastes, indifference or hostility. In the best of circumstances, the artist serves as a kind of aesthetic mentor, introducing an audience to challenging, little known, or obscure works offering insight that might make a work more accessible, engaging, profound or relevant.

In Nicaragua during 2007, a circulation of emails, blogs, petitions and websites claimed a dog—already starved from living on the streets—was chained then denied food and water during an exhibition at Condice Galeria put on by an artist named Guillermo Vargas Jiménez, also known as Habacuc. A news release from the gallery, however, told a different story. Juanita Bermúdez, the director of Condice Galeria, says the dog was at the exhibit for three days beginning Aug. 15. She says the dog was allowed to run free in an inner patio, except for three hours per day when the dog was on exhibit. Bermúdez also says the dog was given water and food brought by the artist himself. She says the dog escaped through the main gate of the facility during the early morning hours of Aug. 17, while a night watchman was cleaning the sidewalk outside.

Rumors banish the artist from their field of vision. The artist is often expendable in the process of determining what is good art, and what is bad art. Consumers have frequently played a vital, even public, role in influencing the shape, texture and direction of art, their value and relevance is growing increasingly tenuous in many sectors of mainstream cultural life. Vargas Jiménez’s vision for his shocking piece could be to grow activism against animal cruelty. Witnessing the dog as art brings discomfort and anger because it is a suffering life. Our morals and instincts may tell us Vargas Jiménez’s work isn’t O.K., so we mentally put restrictions on accepting the piece as art. The starving dog put on display, most likely, isn’t the first time anyone has ever seen one. But the animal is not on the streets, or in an environment of which the public is used to seeing it in, so a grave emotional response develops towards the animal. Seeing that single dog suffering alone also burns the image into memory, so after departing, the art piece is remembered. Now the next time we see a starving animal, we may think twice before walking away—too distracted with our own problems and busy agendas.

In 1987 American photographer and artist, Andres Serrano, displayed “Piss Christ,” which may seem like a piece of shock art that doesn’t necessarily have much to say. Through the presentation of an anger driving work—a small plastic crucifix said to be submerged in Serrano’s own urine—the piece is dubbed a blasphemous sight spoiling for a fight. For almost three decades this photograph has attracted controversy. Let’s talk about this controversy for a second, some Christians believe “Piss Christ” is not only an attack on religion, but the work is set out to be unmissably heinous and adopts that offence as part of its meaning. Anger grew to a climax on Palm Sunday 2011 when French Catholic fundamentalists attacked and destroyed the photograph with hammers. Seeing “Piss Christ” creates anger, but why? What is in the art? Is the piece really an attack on religion? What does Christ mean to you? These questions can be answered if you meditate and look for meaning.

Piss Christ

According to Serrano, anger was not his message. “At the time I made ‘Piss Christ,’ I wasn’t trying to get anything across,” Serrano told The Guardian. “In hindsight, I’d say ‘Piss Christ’ is a reflection of my work, not only as an artist, but as a Christian. The thing about the crucifix itself is that we treat it almost like a fashion accessory. When you see it, you’re not horrified by it at all, but what it represents is the crucifixion of a man,” Serrano says. “So if ‘Piss Christ’ upsets you, maybe it’s a good thing to think about what happened on the cross.” Alas, we see there is something in this powerful work for everyone. Serrano just asks you to do a little thinking and investigation. Examining and considering a work with an optimistic outlook is important. After all, art is all about freedom of expression, and we each have different ways of expressing; and we each can be misunderstood. As long as there is an idea or vision or meaning behind the work(s) produced, the public must accept expressions of art in their morbid forms. In a way, we are stuck with dealing with morbid art having value. We cannot judge someone’s creation as “not art” because it is shocking and makes us uncomfortable.

For personal connection and free thought to be established and generated about a work or idea, the analysis of “the artist” must take place. Weather it is in singing, designing, acting, cooking, writing, painting, debating, idealizing, comedy, etc., all who create are artists in their own way. But does this mean they possess canonicity (worth of studious attention)?

What makes an artist memorable and eminent? Within society we pass judgment on creators and their works, ranking each on a scale of “genius” by habitually looking at how well liked and accepted their works and ideas are by others. In this way we have made it possible for the word “artist” to be evaluated as either a noun or a verb. The noun form of “artist” being someone seen as a significant, talented influence and honorary example, as opposed to the verb, for example, a painter who paints, (receiving respect after the process of putting paint on paper.)

In part, becoming an “artist” revolves around what is socially accepted, valued and popular at the time of a work’s release into society. On the other hand, artistry is dependent on timing. Steve Jobs, for example, is an established “artist” through his creation of the multinational technology phenomena, Apple Inc. Since his ideas were relevant and valuable for this technologically advancing decade, Jobs gained worldwide respect in his creation. But creators like Socrates weren’t recognized for their work until after death. The audience of 423 BC Athens wasn’t ready for all the theories Socrates presented. But as centuries passed, we now give him his due honor and reverence.

Shock art brings to question the dependability of an artist. What were the artist’s intentions? Should there be a defined meaning? Firstly, there is no way to guarantee a specific message to be understood by an audience. Does this mean a message shouldn’t exist or an artist should not fight for his or her intended message? What if their message was taken in offence? Then is it relevant and necessary for the artist to speak-up? At the nitty-gritty, notoriety is the foil of many creators. The ability for others to form personal connection through the work of an artist manifests a good creation. An artist shouldn’t focus on controlling meaning. They release their work to the public, so they welcome the possibility of various opinions to be formed. Their vision should be expressed to facilitate a guided understanding and ownership for their work. Consumers who possess guided control can see legitimacy and meaning in the work, idea and vision, and possibly have a way to relate to, or simply generate interest in, that work. Giving this “power-to-the-people” is how an artist goes form “verb” to “noun.”

Still, an artist will find it difficult to be poise when someone misinterprets the vision he or she has for his or her created work. In order for the public to appreciate a creative process, character or mind-set, fighting for his or her preconceived vision is a golden quality of an artist—as seen by Serrano with “Piss Christ.” Well, what do you know! Speaking up is another way to upgrade the “verb” artist to the “noun” artist.

Now, here’s some debate: Some people say art has taken on too much of an ambiguous understanding. Maybe these works of “shock” are overstepping the boundaries of art. As defined, art is a human attempt to create something well. Therefore, it seems the word “art” truly does have an ambiguous meaning. Art can be almost anything. Cultures, religions and societies put restrictions on art to shape an identity for what art is. For example, Catholic works have an ethereal and puritanical look to them. Pop art works of Andy Warhol wouldn’t be accepted into the realm of Catholic works because of the restrictions on style—even if Warhol did a piece that uplifted the Catholic religion. This does not mean, however, that Warhol’s works are not art—just because they are not universally accepted. In relation to the works done in “shock art,” we have created a realm of restriction just as religions and cultures have done. But let’s just keep in mind; there is no all-knowing art god defining what styles are worthy to enter the monolithic art kingdom and what styles are not.

Standing in the way of consumers pondering meaning is a bona fide works of art versus a replication of art—some pieces of shock art challenge the viewer to think of the meaning, but the artistic authenticity is questionable.

Appearing as a naked Liz Taylor (Denis O’Hare) from “American Horror Story, Hotel,” James Kinser models in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [After Picasso] 2012.

He is attempting a seductive female. His slim pale physique strikes five poses in the piece, wearing only makeup and a tiny black hat. A display of shock art, not intended for young eyes or gentle hearts. Male genitals aren’t visible but escaping pubic hairs leak the idea of a “V” where a “P” would be. Want more? Photographer Niki Grangruth shows a clear display of Kinser’s backside and the crack of his behind. Sexy. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [After Picasso] 2012 aims to challenging traditional artists by promoting gender flexibility and empowering gender nonconformists. But this shocking piece fails to do so because of the lack in original visual aesthetics and the brash and alarming naked appropriations of women, originally sourced in Pablo Picasso’s work.

“Our intention is to retain the visual aesthetics of the original works, while reinventing the context of each piece through the use of a male subject, bodily positioning, the gaze and costume,” says Grangruth on her website. “Each work within the series [‘Muse’] intends to disrupt the socially-constructed male/ female binary.” Seems like a coherent vision, but why use the works of well-known artists as the foundation of the “Muse” gallery? Doing so is a bit too daring with a side of disrespect. Grangruth and Kinser’s “re-imagining” of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [After Picasso] 2012 is an attempt to give aesthetic equality to a work that is studied in books throughout academia. Picasso was wrestling with the problem of depicting three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional picture plane. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon he used primitive masks, his cubist technique and sexual subject matter. Picasso’s influences on surrealism and cubism rejected popular aspects of traditional artists of his day and did so through his original visual aesthetics.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso, 1907.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [After Picasso] 2012, by Niki Grangruth and James Kinser.

Grangruth and Kinser challenge viewers to accept their knock-off version of Picasso’s historic pieces, and that’s cheating, not to sound cavalier, but come on. The message of pro-gender flexible art in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [After Picasso] 2012 is too abnormal to not have a strong impact through a completely original organic composition or visual aesthetic. Annoyingly, Kinser and Grangruth rely on the master paintings of well-known artists like Picasso to spark and conjure openness and receptiveness to “Muse.”

Kinser’s appropriation of women in the work is disappointing. Being a male, Kinser must show delicacy and beauty so audiences know he is trying to look like a prostitute based on Picasso’s work. It’s disrespectful to women and not a coherent way to activate empowerment for gender flexibility. Grangruth says they are trying to reimage the context, but she and Kinser actually changing the context to fit their own agenda—promoting gender flexibility through art—but essentially, failing to drive the message home.

It is understood that we all strive to demonstrate value in the things we do, which has become harder over the years, not only within art, but also in justifying authority as individuals in relation to dependability, purity and originality. The values we lack in our personality make it harder to accept what is produced by one another, especially when it is boldly “original.” Shock art has disturbed individuals, some to the point of being angry. But like a child, asking a parent thousands of questions to understand the world—consumers, be kids, and question the intentions of an artist. Emotions cannot validate ignorance. An effort must be made to understand what we see, so we can respect one another. Let’s exercise tolerance. Remember, the creator and his or her audience is connected in this living system of growth and exchange. The aesthetic pleasure of an art piece is the shallow shell. Let’s dig deep and uncover the meaning of a visual work, and bask in the value.

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