Sunday, December 14, 2008

Nothing's Shocking?

Between Nothingness and Paradise (detail) by Gregory de la Haba

When writing I follow two paths. The first involves complete silence and the other involves loud music. My taste in music ranges from Bach to Megadeth. Tonight, since I’m working away from home, was an ear shattering night. I listened to my usual-- Into the Lungs of Hell off of Megadeth’s So Far, So Good… So What! album is always a favorite for setting the mood when that extra edge is needed. However, tonight I felt like something else-- something less audibly shocking, so to speak.

Eventually I stumbled upon my copy of the album Nothing’s Shocking by Jane’s Addiction. The album, which was released in 1988, made me think-- just what is shocking--with social commentary in mind-- today as far as the art world is concerned? The art world is a reflection of our collective culture, true? So what is shocking? What shocks us visually when we visit a gallery, art museum, or art fair? What hits us in the gut? What wakes us up? Does that type of work exist in mass today or has the concept been so watered down that it is only whored out by attention seeking art-star hopefuls?

For me, shock art-- or just art that is shocking if you like-- must have a strong message in order to remain valid. Viewers must leave with an idea that goes beyond the absurdity, beyond the bizarre. Sadly, a true sense of social commentary is rarely achieved with shocking works today. That is my opinion. I have seen very few works to convince me otherwise in recent years.

A perfect example of this shocking failure could be found at Bridge Art Fair (Wynwood) during Art Basel Miami. An artist at Bridge Wynwood strived to shock curious onlookers as they passed by his installation titled Between Nothingness and Paradise-- which was conveniently located near the center of the exhibit space. The installation-- involving three horses in the throws of exaggerated sexual gratification with a child-sized doll standing nearby-- was the work of Gregory de la Haba. Needless to say, the spectacle-- I mean installation-- attracted a steady flow of viewers. However, the interest did not appear to be strictly about the work. In fact, people tended to focus more on the man behind the work.

Throughout the length of the fair onlookers whispered amongst themselves while passing by the large installation (large compared to the other exhibited work at Bridge Wynwood)-- questions about the artists sanity and sexuality could be overheard. It seemed that people were more shocked by the fact that de la Haba created the installation than by the artwork itself. In that sense, the only social commentary that de la Haba achieved was an exposition of assumptions questioning his stability as an individual and as a father-- since it was made clear from word of mouth that de la Haba created the piece in the presence of his young sons.

With that in mind, there was nothing truly shocking about de la Haba‘s actions. In fact, it appeared as if he were following a blueprint for attempting controversy-- a path that has been followed by many hopeful provocateurs in recent years. However, de la Haba did make a few unorthodox twists and turns in his game plan. For example, one report states that the artist chartered a truck that displayed an image of the installation as a form of promotion-- as if being positioned as a centerpiece at Bridge Wynwood was not enough.

Apparently the artist drove around Wynwood displaying the graphic image until Miami police threatened to arrest him. Censorship or common sense? You be the judge. In other words, a shocking work of art with meaning does not need to be forced upon viewers in order to be valid. Unfortunately, it seems that is exactly what de la Haba was attempting to do. This example of the 'look at me, look at me' attitude is becoming all too common. The story is always the same-- no matter how badly the game is played. Fumble.

I’m certain that dreams of instant art-stardom tickled de la Haba’s brain upon resting his head each night throughout the length of the fair. The only problem is that this provocateur, as so many before him, failed to provoke anything other than a few fleeting moments of curiosity, concern, and ridicule from viewers. Nothing lasting. No meaningful kicks to the gut. Nothing truly shocking. If there was social commentary behind his ‘shocking’ installation it was lost after a few beers and a trip to Art Basel Miami.

This brings me back to the questions at hand: What is shocking today in the art world? What is purposefully shocking, so to speak? Has social commentary been exchanged for a petty display of arrogance and the desire for fame? Is de la Haba more important than the message his work conveys? In thinking about these questions-- while listening to Jane’s Addiction-- I recalled the past.

The album Nothing’s Shocking by Jane’s Addiction was released a year before the Andres Serrano Piss Christ scandal. However, there is a long history of ‘shocking’ art to consider when thinking about the span of art history-- works that were both shocking and meaningful-- works that offered commentary that has stood the test of time. That said, what exactly is shocking-- with meaning-- today considering the art world we know? Why does it seem that social commentary in these works has been lost to art-star delusions?

There is much to comment on today... issues and concerns that could be delivered with a visual bang-- a clever form of shock art. After all, we live in the ‘age of terror’-- there is enough war to go around, we watch movies involving mass destruction followed by movies involving talking animals, children butcher thousands of characters on the tv screen each day in the form of a Playstation 3 game (or is Xbox 360 all the rage?) followed by taking care of a virtual pet so that it does not get 'sick'.

So what is shocking today? How can our way of life be expressed in both a shocking and meaningful manner? Is there still room for social commentary just under the surface? Or would we be better off searching for Wild Horses.

Links of Interest:

Art Basel: It's 'horses gone wild' at Bridge fair

Wacked-Out Weirdness at Art Basel

Horse Porn, Kids, and Basel

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor


Anonymous said...

I believe the artist had a right to express or shock people. My current painting (a work in progress) right now will have people shocked and maybe some will be offended. Regardless of their reactions this is something I feel I have to create. It has a strong message for me. This is what I call a political painting. Residential School for Native Children will be the title. It express's the pain these children had to endure. It's not an attack on religion or church. It is the other way around. It was an attack on a Nation of People and their language and culture. My children ask "why did u create art like this mommy". I told them so it will never be forgotten how we almost lost our identity. How other Nations of people came here, took our children away and didnt return them until they were grown. These native children returned home, not knowing their family, their language, or their culture. One of those children was your great grandmother. The pain still hurts. Yes it will be a shocking painting. It will pull at the heart strings of my Native brothers and sisters. So regardless if art is shocking and offends people, sometimes the artist need to express themselves.

Anonymous said...

Towanna, I think you missed the authors point. The author is not saying that he is against shock art. I gather that he is saying that shock art needs to have more meaning than just seeking fame. There is a big difference between what you are doing and what this artist has done with his horse sex installation. He is quoted saying "I can't wait to see how the police react". Statements like that are a sign of desperation. I agree that this artist is petty.

Anonymous said...

I think you are right. Today we often view the artist behind the work more than the work itself. That can be a good thing but in this case the artist was forcing attention. Real shock art does not have to force a reaction. A shock artist who creates stimulating works does not have to depend on renting a truck in order to grab press.

Anonymous said...

Oh good points. Maybe some artists miss the point of shock art. Maybe some think it is all about becoming famous so they can bring attention to what ever it is they want attention on. But that is not how it works. The attention should be the art and if it is really good then the commentary will go on in discussions for a long time. Making an instillation of overly sexual horses would make me wonder about the sanity of that artist as well but if there was a real message about maybe animal or child sexual abuse then maybe I would see the message and ponder the message more than the messenger? It doesn't have to be about abuse of course, I am just using that as an example. I don't think there is anything wrong with making a shocking instillation but I agree there needs to be more meaning there than just something shocking. I thought the meaning was what makes the art good. Even if you don't get the meaning there has to be something there that makes you remember it.

terminusaquo said...

If an artwork is shocking, does its meaning end with said shock? Or is it not possible for shock and meaning to co-exist? As for the rented truck, if you take a moment to actually consider the work, the truck fits right in with the spectacle motif. The fact is, I could just as easily accuse the author of this blog post as being the one who is seeking to make a name for him/herself--via the good old fashioned fun, and spectacle, of raking an artist over the coals. And if I went on to write an entire article on the topic, my endeavor would be commensurately gratuitous.

Anonymous said...

I viewed this installation at Wynwood. I don't know if I was talking to the artist or the gallerist representing the work. The man was dressed in a flashy suit and always had a big smile on his face as he spoke. Anyways, I was not told any direct reason for the work. The man did make it clear that he wanted the work to turn heads. There was a lot of talk about the reaction the police had. A lot of laughing.

When looking at the work you can try to discover meaning. You could say that it is about the loss of innocence or child abuse. But if that is the meaning it was lost on the behavior of the man in the flashy suit. You don't face serious topics like that with a flashy suit, big smile, bold laughs, and PR stunts.Behavior like that is not shocking because it is expected from artists and gallerists today.

Anonymous said...

Having seen the installation myself, I can say that it seemed to obviously "work" in the artists favor because he did get quite a few write-ups from the show even though he is a relative unknown.
His horse installation, while the centerpiece of the show, is just a minor piece in his vast collection and I think it was meant to generate more interest towards his more "everyday" pieces if you will.

If you are a fan of heavy metal, you should understand shock value. It has been used in metal since its inception but that does not mean the heart of the artist (band) is not where it should be. But sometimes you need that something extra to make yourself visible in the sea of masses. Lets not forget one thing, artists are lousy business people.