Should Christians Create Shock Art?
Shock Art and The Bible
Many Christians have asked us the question, should Christians create shock art? It’s a valid question. And it’s important to understand the answer to the question and the history behind it. You see, at AEM we believe Christians involved in the arts should feel free to shock the audience through their art, and feel free to confront ideas through their art. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. It is a valid technique because it mirrors the very nature of God and the stories we read in scripture.
God is good, he is just, and he is a loving God. He loves his people so much he will go to great lengths to rescue them from sin, and to awaken them from spiritual slumber. God, through the lives and actions of his prophets, used whatever means possible to grip the hearts and minds of his people. At times, it was through spoken words describing the sin and hypocrisy of God’s people. At other times, he commanded his prophets to live out shocking performances meant to jolt the people of God from their sin filled stupor.
Contrary to popular opinion (and some sermons delivered in churches), the gospel is not about making people feel better. Jesus’ teaching angered the Pharisees and enraged those who did not want to hear his message. Christ did not come into the world to coddle us, or to leave us in our current state. Like a heart surgeon, he saw our heart, and he cared enough to deliver the bad news about our cancerous sin. God loves you, and that is why he will give you the true diagnosis and insist on the necessary surgery.
Christ came to make us better, not to make us feel better. And God loves us so much that if he needed to shock us out of our stupor, and wake us from our disillusionment, he will do it. 1 Peter 2:8 tells us the very life of Christ, and the gospel message, will offend people because the gospel is an affront to our pride. There is no way around it.
The Therapeutic Model of the Modern Church
There has been a tacit philosophy in many Christian circles that art is only meant to be therapeutic or ornamental. The only exception might be a difficult passage of scripture for the purposes of illustration to aid in teaching the gospel. Along with this notion is the idea that it cannot have offensive words, offensive topics, or offensive images. If you can still find a Christian bookstore, this neutered art is the kind of therapeutic and educational art you might encounter. Now, to be clear, we need therapeutic art in our hospitals, counseling centers and many other venues. However, we must not limit our artistic choices to only the therapeutic and ornamental.
The Shock Model of the Mainstream Art World
On the completely other end of the spectrum, the mainstream art world has embraced what it calls “shock art”. As it sounds, this art is intended to shock, or to offend the audience. It has been a significant part of the visual art world for the last 100 years. It has become one of the easiest ways to get noticed, and the most obvious way to stand out. Artists have done everything from putting a cross in a jar of urine, and placing feces on a painting of mother Mary, to selling a can filled with excrement as a work of art.
Shock art often gets attention because journalists and news outlets will cover the reaction and anger it incites in the audience. This creates controversy, and that controversy creates the buzz over the artwork. The price goes up, which in turn inspires more artists to do the same.
The art world usually claims shock art originated with Marcel Duchamp in the 1920s with his urinal being presented as artwork and titled, “fountain”. Though this was shocking, it was not where shocking art started. It was simply a new application of a model implemented by God long before.
A brief history lesson: Shock art started over 2,000 years before Duchamp and for very different purposes. God himself commissioned shocking art at the hands of his prophets. They shaved their heads, cooked food over excrement and married hookers all to offend and shock God’s people. In fact, that same art would still be shocking today.
The problem is not that scripture doesn’t speak to the current art scene, but rather that we have forgotten what God has shown us in his word. We need to rediscover the raw communication and art within the bible in order to embrace the freedom Christ died to give us.
Duchamp, Mapplethorpe, Manzoni, and the like were late comers to this concept of shocking art. This shock art movement of the last 100 years is a new expression of this approach to art, with a nearly opposite intent of what we find in God’s word. Early shock art was explicitly Judeo-Christian and explicitly pro-religious. God’s people were the ones called to create it and to demonstrate it through performance art. To understand this fully, is to become more grounded in scripture and therefore experience more freedom in the art you create.
Shock Art: Multiple Applications
Shock art is simply a mode of communication. It can be in the form of satire, like the classic writings of Jonathon Swift in A Modest Proposal. The shock of his satire was used to show the absurdity, foolishness or hard-heartedness of the reader. His satire was used to shock people at the recognition of their own immorality.
Shock art can be shocking simply because you are breaking new creative ground. Over 100 years ago the creative choices of the Fauves shocked audiences because they departed from the strict naturalistic representation in art. From men like Henri Matisse and George Braque, color and expression became the focal point instead of strict representation. By today’s standards it would barely raise an eyebrow anywhere, but it was shocking at the time.
Shock art can be shocking because it is blasphemous, or particularly offensive to religion, political party, or basic social beliefs. This often emerges out of frustration at injustice but can also be an artist vomiting up his or her emotional turmoil without any filters or concerns for the audience. Though it may seem the same, it is helpful to ask what the intent was. Were they using their art process as personal catharsis over a traumatic issue? Were they being strategic in what they are addressing? Was it shocking just to get above the noise and get attention?
Shocking art can also be personal expression that arises from the idea of the Nietzschean ubermensch. They are trying to get beyond all moral limits, because they believe that is where true freedom is experienced. This is done by violating moral and cultural norms in order to demonstrate they are free of them. It is not so much about communication, or interest in the audience, as it is a personal mission to get beyond the rules they think are holding them back. These individuals will always oppose Christianity because they abhor the idea of being bound by anything.
Christians are bound by the Love of God, and called to love others, respect others, and be sensitive to others. These Nietzschean shock artists believe such notions are the very problem. After all, Nietzsche hated Jesus and Christianity itself.
Shocking an audience can also be helpful, healthy, and Godly. Shocking people is not inherently evil today any more than it was when Jesus threw over the tables in the temple, or when he told people to cut out their eyes if their eyes are causing them to stumble. He used hyperbole and shocking actions to wake people from their spiritual slumber, apathy or heresy.
Toward a Healthy Response
The challenge is to get beyond being shocked or becoming outraged. It is not enough for Christians to say ‘I don’t know much about this particular kind of art, but I know what I don’t like. . . we must have a more robust understanding of the philosophy behind particular works of art, and the nature of various forms of art. Historian Jacques Barzun encouraged men and women to stop objecting based on preference and learn enough to say, “It is because I understand this work that I dislike it.” Then we have a principled response and move beyond mere reaction.
It is out of this sense of responsibility that a Christian, and particularly a Christian involved in the arts ought to be aware of the roots, and nature of the shock art we encounter.
Examples of Shock Art and The Bible
Many of our devotionals and daily readings from the Bible avoid the graphic oracles, prophetic condemnations and the shock art God commanded his prophets to commit. We tend to focus on the passages which offer encouragement, discuss God’s promises and remind us of the forgiveness we find in Christ. And yet, we are called to consider the whole counsel of God, and to read all scripture as “God-breathed”, and useful for teaching, encouragement and instruction.
There are two passages I want to consider here. First is in the book Ezekiel, as it illuminates a unique time when God commissioned his prophets to participate in performance shock art.
And water you shall drink by measure, the sixth part of a hin; from day to day you shall drink. And you shall eat it as a barley cake, baking it in their sight on human dung.” And the Lord said, “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread unclean, among the nations where I will drive them.” Ezekiel 4:11-13 (ESV)
Ezekiel the prophet, who is called to be holy and to be a voice for God is commanded by God to cook with his own excrement. This is offensive to most people, but for a representative of God to do something this graphic and ceremonially unclean was even more shocking to Israel. God commanded Ezekiel to do this because God wanted to shock his own people through this performance art. God was depicting the coming punishment of Israel due to their sin.
This is not the only performance art piece God calls Ezekiel to perform. He also shaves his head, burns his hair, and lays on his side for over a year before laying on the other side for forty days. All of this was shocking, and yet it was explicitly commissioned by God. Each component was symbolic and intentional. The shock was meant to inform the audience, and then transform their understanding.
The second passage comes from the book of Hosea, where God commands his prophet to marry a prostitute.
When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.”
Hosea 1:2 (ESV)
Hosea’s life was authentic. The drama and heart break of marrying a whore and having her cheat on you was real. The drama of buying her back again was emotionally heart breaking. Yet, it was designed by God to confront the behavior of his people. This performance art piece was seen by all, but it was more than simply performance art. It was also real life. This marriage was fully embodied by Hosea and his wife, Gomer. It included marriage to a prostitute, adultery, and the story of a husband who longed to woo his faithless wife back to the marriage bed. God used this shocking story to preach to the hearts and minds of his people.
Biblical Principles of Shock Art
Shock art in the Bible is always through the voice of the prophets. Shock art is something God calls his prophets to perform, and we can see clearly that shock art is a tool of the prophetic part of the body of Christ. The shock was designed to awaken people from their sinful ways. People use the term prophet in very different ways in different theological circles. Some are helpful, and some lead to confusion.
If we look at scripture we can see that prophecy was always designed to call God’s people back into a deeper relationship with him. This could be more like proclamation at times, but it was also confrontational. Our understanding of the term prophet today needs to be able to include both if it is to be meaningful and useful for our understanding of the word and the character of God. If you want to read more about this, I cover it briefly in this article: Stop Saying Artists are Prophets.
The key distinction is this: Prophets were not those who predict the future, but those who are calling us to repent of our sins. The judgment of God always has the covenantal understanding of “unless you repent” these things will happen. Like Ninevah, we can see God did not follow through on his threatened judgment because they repented.
Shock Art and Addressing Sin
Shock art must fit the severity of the sin. God doesn’t use shock art over mishaps and minor issues. God only uses this shocking art when His people have wandered so far into sin that their minds have been desensitized, and their consciences have been seared. It is only when their sin is severe that God utilizes something shocking to grab their attention. Thus, it is not a major tool or theme, but a single color in a palette of hundreds.
The prophets were rebuking people who were worshiping other gods, sacrificing their children, and perverting the word of God. God doesn’t get graphic with us over minor issues but is gracious and merciful . . . slow to anger. It is only after continued disobedience and rebellious sinful choices he uses more extreme means to grab our attention.
For instance, to a young boy who lied about how many cookies he ate, it would be inappropriate to ground him for a year, and to read the judgment of God upon Israel to this little boy as if the sin was equal. God is not casting this little one aside and sending him into exile over one or two cookies.
But if you spent your life being selfish and sinful, it would be a different matter. If you had been taking advantage of others your whole life, you might not wake up from your pride and arrogance unless you had a vision like those in the classic work, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. What the evil, selfish Scrooge requires in order to ‘wake up’ is the graphic visions of his past, present and future. His soul required a devastating level of shock and horror before his desensitized heart would wake up, and repent. The shock was used to expose the sin. This story demonstrates the shocking story played out before Scrooge. It is not shock art in the purest sense, but if you are identifying with Scrooge, the story is meant to grip your heart in the same way that godly shock art should grip your heart.
Shock Art and the Risk of Overexposure
Shock art must not be used in a way that desensitizes people to evil. This is not a predominant way for people to communicate in order to contribute to spiritual health and human flourishing. Showing someone pictures of the Holocaust to warn them of racist beliefs may be effective, but to look at pictures of torture, dismemberment, and genocide over and over may actually desensitize someone to the horrors of war – and could even give them ideas of how to objectify, demonize, and dehumanize other people. What was shocking once or twice becomes mere background noise when we are subjected to it excessively.
A Helpful Verse to Consider is Philippians 4:8
“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”
Our goal in all things is to encourage others to become more loving, more gracious, and more honest about their own life. This means we are required to identify evil as evil, and to understand and address the horrors of sexual abuse, genocide, torture, and other evils. We cannot avoid addressing evil, pursuing justice, and condemning that which is evil. This passage in Philippians is not condoning a naïve view of life. It is calling us to a wise use of our emotional, mental, and spiritual resources.
We cannot avoid evil, but we must consider that evil within the context of God’s judgment of evil doers, and the call for repentance and justice. The greater picture is always to be the consequences of sin, the heart of God to redeem that which Satan meant for ill, the call for us to pursue justice, and the hope and grace offered by God.
Shock Art and the Heart
Shock art should be created from a heart of love. The bible does not offer us the option of simply vomiting up our feelings in the name of catharsis. Neither does scripture condone offending others for fun or sport. All is to be done because we are seeking to love God more, or we are seeking to love our neighbor more (Matt 22:37-40).
Mel Gibson said that he made the movie The Passion so graphic because young men were desensitized by graphic video games and movies. He felt he needed to cut through that by shocking them with the violent nature of Christ’s beating and crucifixion. Only then would young men be gripped by the sacrificial love of Christ.
Pablo Picasso, who was not a Christian, was used by God to address the horrors of Guernica. He created this massive work to show the public the evil transgressions of Germany in a painting that is 11 feet tall and 25 feet wide. The Germans had mercilessly bombed the Basque town of Guernica killing men, women and children civilians. Picasso used his talent to shock the world and bring attention to injustice. This was a perfectly biblical way to utilize shock. I believe God used the artwork of Guernica to express love for the innocent, and a cry for justice.
People who care deeply about the life of unborn children have also utilized shock art to wake people up to the reality of what abortion really is. Whether it is the recent movie addressing the evil of Gosnell, or images of fully-formed babies with their spines cut. These images and movies are shocking, but it is not without purpose. The purpose is to protect life, to protect the innocent and to shock our culture out of our complacency in the murder of the innocent. The bible is clear on the value of all human life, and everyone made in the image of God. To argue for abortion without being able to watch the footage of an abortion and examine the ‘evidence’ is intellectually dishonest and disingenuous. If we believe in something, there is no reason to hide the nature of what it is.
If we understand scripture accordingly, Christians involved in the arts should feel free to shock, and free to confront ideas through their art. This approach mirrors the very nature of God and the principles we read in scripture.
For too long, Christians have avoided, and even demonized the use of shocking art, lyrics, or literature. That was reactionary, and an ill-informed approach. More importantly, that approach is not biblical. For too long Christians have approached much of the art world from some sentimental, nostalgic desire to avoid the realities of a fallen world. Yet Christ came to redeem us and to make us agents of restoration in all things (Colossians 1:15-20). This may include being tender with those who are wounded. It also includes shocking those who have grown numb to the gospel and offending those who have abandoned their faith.
Jesus was Shocking
Remember that Jesus message was shocking. He came to show us our sinfulness and refused to coddle us in our sin. He refused to let the religious off the hook, and to candy coat the work of the devil, the sinfulness of our hearts, or the cost of discipleship. It should not surprise us that he made enemies.
His offense was the shocking nature of the cross. It confronts our pride and calls us to repent. We need to feel free to do the same with our art. We are free to pursue truth, beauty and goodness. Also, we are free to create art that confronts others as we pursue truth, beauty, and goodness. After all, we were called to be like Christ.
Shock art and the artistic works that are designed to challenge and shock others are legitimate for us to use. It is one part of our artistic palette. The question is not if we can use shocking content, or if we are free to shock our audience. The questions are when should we use it and what is our motivation.
Soli Deo Gloria
Copyright © 2019 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.
Next Week, Part 2: Shock Art and the Current Art Scene