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Should Christians Create Shock Art? Part Two

Should Christians Create Shock Art? Part Two

As we continue our discussion this week on the topic of Shock Art, let’s first do a quick review. In the previous blog article, we discussed how Scripture offers us a model for creating shocking art. The Bible shows how it is perfectly legitimate and a viable tool for Christians to utilize in their artistic endeavors.

Why Our Culture Celebrates Shock Art

Today, we examine the roots of shock art, and the impact upon our modern culture. The roots of shocking artistic expression in most mainstream film, TV, music, and fine art is radically different than the roots and intent of shock art we saw last week in the Biblical examples.

So let’s begin. Artists justifiably feel there is value in shocking the audience. They would ask: “Why not shock the audience?” “Why not do something bold or offensive.” God would agree, as we saw clearly in last week’s blog. It has become normal for people to utilize shocking material to grip the attention of their audience, but where did this notion come from and what should our response be?

Recognizing the Benefit

We can recognize the benefit: it gets the eyeballs, the iTunes downloads and YouTube views. This is the challenge for people communicating in a world of noisy advertising, Facebook posts and endless emails. However, we shouldn’t simply accept it without examining its origins. It isn’t helpful to give a knee-jerk reaction. We need to use the mind God gave us to understand where this shock art came from, what purpose it serves, and then decide how to respond. Proponents of shock art call it cultural commentary, while opponents of shock art might call it cultural pollution.

To be fair, it is challenging for artists and advertisers to cut through the onslaught of visual information and set themselves apart. Catchy phrases or word-plays are good as far as they go, but the easiest route is shocking the audience. Creative communicators know they can get the attention they want by taking risqué photos and singing offensive lyrics to stand out from the crowd.

The shocking content can be effective, but the real question is: at what cost? What is the cost to the individual, to the artistic community and to the broader culture of consumers? Is there an eroding effect upon the decency of a culture, even though free speech has increased the choices people can make when they create art or advertising?

Mainstream Shock Art: Origins & Justifications

It wasn’t always this way. Many cultures used to have a threshold for content that was sexual or violent in nature. Anything crossing that threshold was forbidden or quarantined to a particular part of town. We didn’t allow it on broadcast television, in mainstream newspapers, or in our local theaters. There was a sense of decorum and decency protected by the public for the sake of children and a civilized society.

This was the reason for the etiquette and social rules designed to foster human flourishing. The lines were at times appropriate and at other times overly restrictive. It is challenging for a society to completely agree on where the lines should be drawn, but the inherent value of such lines is evident in any culture. A society where people yell obscenities in front of children and produce graphic images in public spaces people utilize every day does not contribute to human flourishing.

Yet obscene, vulgar and shocking art has come to be an accepted part of the art world, fashion, design, film, TV, and video games. We have heard artists cry out they have a right to free speech through their artistic expression. More than that, many of the most successful artists in the last fifty years have become famous precisely because they have made a name for themselves creating shocking and offensive art. There is not a minor contingent of art collectors who are propping it up. It is celebrated by galleries, museums and collectors. The primary institutions in the art world, as well as the entertainment industry have pushed the envelope over and over. From the video game, Grand Theft Auto to the latest hyper-sexual hip hop music video. It is everywhere.

The History of Modern Shock Art

The roots of shock can be seen in France in the 1800’s according to Anthony Julius. In 2003, Julius wrote a book called Transgressions: The Offenses of Art. In this book he set his legal mind to work, examining the origins of shock art. Julius is a professor and a barrister in London who among other things worked for Princess Diana.

Julius Anthony cites the revolution of 1848 as ”one of those moments when everything that is frozen — everything that seems inevitable, unchangeable, oppressively and always just there — unfreezes,” although he might just as well have cited the French Revolution, with its scorn for the past and will to overturn every piety. The delirium of 1848 eventually made possible, among other things, Manet’s provocative hybrids of the sacred and the secular, the highbrow and the pornographic.

Georges Bataille

One of the hallmarks of this era was the focus upon breaking societal norms, and a notable man who developed this approach to culture was Georges Bataille. Georges may not be a man many recognize today, but he was the man who influenced Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard. These men would later be seen as the fathers of post-modernism.

Georges Bataille maintained that in a modernist society, true internal freedom can be achieved only by violating taboos – such as bans on murder, bestiality, heresy and so forth. He was fascinated with eroticism, death, and especially human sacrifice. He built largely upon the idea of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. His conclusion was clear: if we are to jettison the Christian ideas of morality, and move beyond the limits of our current society, then artists must start by depicting the most shocking subjects possible in order to offend Christians and the elite. This is the core of the shock art movement which traveled through the design schools in Paris, London, and then New York and Los Angeles.

Nothing New Under the Sun

George presumed he was original, but there is nothing new under the sun. His premise was only through exploring these forbidden topics will we find freedom. Not unlike the idea that freedom and autonomy will come by eating the fruit of the tree which we were forbidden to eat. We think what is forbidden is forbidden not for our own good, but simply to deprive us of some other pleasure or benefit.

Examples of Shock Art

There are too many transgressive artworks to name them all, but there are a few that are more famous. One is the painting of the Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili decorated with elephant dung, which recently sold for $4.6 Million Dollars. Serrano placed a cross in urine and took photos which caused a big stir back in the 1980’s because it was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Tate Museum in London gives approval to shock artists via it’s annual “Turner Prize” to offensive art, including blow-up dolls engaging in sex acts which are actually bronze statues, rotting flesh being devoured by maggots and vases depicting scenes of child abuse and death.

Shock Art in the Music Industry

As noted by Martha Bayles in her book, Hole in our Soul, shock art seeped into the music world largely through groups like The Rolling Stones – whose members found inspiration in the shock art they saw in the British Art Colleges(inspired by Georges Battaille).

Malcolm McLaren, the creator and manager of the Sex Pistols, had been to several art schools, and was inspired by the Situationist International movement in Paris which promoted absurdist and provocative actions as a way of enacting social change. McLaren brought this concept to his bondage and fetish clothing store in London before using these ideas to create and manage the Sex Pistols.

Punk rock music in effect turned Rock music into performance art – utilizing shock art as it’s core identity. I remember hanging out in Beverly Hills a few years ago, and bumping into a musician who met McLaren. He recalled how McLaren would yell at the band telling them he didn’t give a !#$% about the music, he just wanted them to shock people.

Gangsta Rap

Even gangsta rap finds roots in Rick Rubin who was a former band member of the New York punk band called The Pricks. The rage, and the encouragement to turn that rage into a performance art could all be traced back to Georges Battaile and the French Revolution era – emerging through the avante-garde art & design schools of Europe.

So we see this line from the French Revolution all the way through to the elite modern art museums, and popular concerts by rock, punk, and rap musical artists. We can also see the effects of deconstructionism in more classical circles with the work of Cage, Schoenberg, and movements such as a-tonalism which sought to abandon the old boundaries and structures of the musical world.

It’s hard to imagine what taboos are left to violate, aside from an artist actually committing suicide and pronouncing it to be performance art before he commits the act.

Current Shock Art Culture

Today artists who want to be financially successful use shock art simply as a means to get rich. Shocking art draws the press. Many believe any press is good press, especially if morality is already tossed out the window. That way you get free time in the press and name recognition. Curators will buy your art, teens will watch the video because it’s the newest hot content, and sometimes simply because they want to hear what parents are objecting too.

When the law finally passed requiring albums with explicit lyrics to have a warning on the CD, Dee Snyder, the lead singer of Twisted Sister, felt like he wanted to thank congress. Before the law passed, he had been arguing before congress against such labels to be placed on his albums and the albums of artists like him. Dee was just as surprised as anyone else when the warning labels were placed on his albums and CD’s – his sales went up astronomically! Emerging artists saw this as an easy way to sell their music – make it shocking. Violate cultural sensibilities and people will pay to be stunned, or at least to hear what all the fuss is about.

(Note: I am not saying that some of these artists are not musically talented, or that they are not tremendous performers. I am simply examining their utilization of shock, and the benefits they receive from doing so.)

The Problem of Shock Art

One of the problems of shock art is sensory overload. Over time this produces a society which is desensitized so much it becomes harder and harder to shock people. What shocked my parents, barely raises an eyebrow today. Shocking art becomes like a children’s game of ‘grosser than gross’ with the same juvenile goal of making something gross, but without any parents around to tell them when they’ve gone too far.

Even if they don’t agree, producers and managers won’t stop because the shocking art is what’s paying for their Bentley, and their mansion in the Hills. Curators and museum boards buy the art to demonstrate their supposed sophistication, and ability to be unmoved or even entertained by morbid, perverted works of art.

As profoundly stated in the book Sibling Rivalry, Harvard professor Robert Bly notes in the general populace of America, nobody wants to be the grown up, and so the selfish bickering and juvenile attitudes never cease. It’s as if a whole segment of society has become Peter Pan, refusing to grow up and mature.

The Arguments Artists Make for Shock Art

Anthony Julius, the British intellectual took the time to identify the five most common defenses of scandalous art and then to examine their arguments. Here is his research:

First, in America, artists look to the First Amendment defense, which says that art is entitled to constitutional protection. Second, they use the ‘Aesthetic alibi,’ which makes art into ”a privileged zone in which the otherwise unsayable can be said”. Third, they use what he calls the Estrangement defense, which says that art instructs by jolting viewers out of their conventional responses. The fourth argument is what he designates, the Formalist defense, which insists that it’s naïve to talk about what art ”means,” because the only proper subject of art is its own formal properties. Fifth, and lastly, he discerned what he calls the Canonic defense, which maintains that many works of art refer to older and now canonical works, and so it’s ignorant to let them offend you, unless you want to take offense at the older works too. The example often comes from Classical music wherein the shock is claimed to be part of an organic evolution from Bach to Cage.

There is no need to improve upon the assessment in Julius’ critique. Julius concludes that all these defenses talk around, rather than about, the art in question. The formalist defense pretends that art doesn’t mean anything even when it obviously does. The Canonic defense tries to squelch discussion of one artwork by invoking the authority of another. The estrangement defense has a point — there is a legitimate pedagogic value to shocking people — but those who make this art often gloss over the way some artworks make you feel. They aren’t intended merely to shock. They are meant to insult.

Condescending Answers of Shock Artists and Critics

What is clear to the public is that in many ways these defenses are condescending and belittling of the populace – you don’t understand, so just get over it, or go away. There is no respect for the audience, but instead a disdain for the audience.

NY Times music critic and journalist Jon Caramanica in the article Who’s the Shockingest of them all?,  exemplifies this arrogant dismissiveness saying, “There’s something hopelessly middle class about shock.” It is a sentiment which is as convenient for them as it is condescending. Like many in the art scene, there is a dismissive approach to opposing views. Elitism always tends toward such views, but we healthy people resist them. They create a circular argument that denies access to anyone who expresses dissent. If you don’t like the art or find it offensive you are not worth talking to because you simply aren’t “in the know”. It is one of the reasons artist critics and the high end artists they review tend to co-create the bubble in which they live. This is the troubled nature of the relationship between the artists and critics which Jacques Barzun criticized.


The recent history of shock art has troubling origins, fueled by dangerous philosophies. It is neither noble, nor helpful in creating a society that promotes human flourishing. It is all about offense, rage, and tearing down old societal systems. However, it is never life-giving and cannot replace what it seeks to destroy because it actually has no internal logic. It only leads to a new elitism, which guards over a society void of sound thinking.

Shocking art is neither new nor forbidden for artists who consider themselves Christians. In our previous article, we demonstrated that shock art actually originated over 2,000 years ago in the lives of the prophets of Israel. The prophet Jeremiah was commanded by God to cook over his own feces, and Hosea was called to marry a prostitute.

The God of the Israelites already established the value of shock art. What’s the difference? While modern artists offend simply in order to sell more art, or to offend the morals of society, God showed us that shock art was supposed to be used to shock people out of their sinful stupor.

God knew from the beginning that shocking people can have its place, but that choice must always be in the service of loving your audience.

God loved his people enough to shock them out of a life of foolish and dangerous choices. Our job as artists, if we choose to shock people, should be the same. As creatives who are also Christians, we are free to shock our audience, but we must take care to operate out of motives that mirror the biblical examples. And we must consider the impact upon our audience. We cannot pursue shock for the sake of shock. We must pursue shock for the sake of loving our neighbor, and being a steward of the culture in which we live.

Copyright © 2019 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

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