marcus westbury

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Nothing’s Shocking?

April 27th, 2010 by marcus

IN A world where shock – or at least pretending-to-be-shocked-while-actually-promoting-the-thing-in-question – has become a PR staple and a paint-by-numbers marketing tool, is it even possible to be shocked by art any more? Is there any point in artists trying to be shocking? Is there any real difference between the shock value of provocative art and the day-to-day scandals to which we’ve almost become immune?

It’s easy to forget how accustomed we are to being “shocked and outraged”. We seek it out. Visit any newspaper website on a slow news day and be amazed at how many of the “most viewed” items are tales of torrid affairs, sordid murders, depravity, incest, paedophilia, and more.

It is also true that we are becoming a much more fractured society. One group’s shock is another’s ho-hum. Society as a whole has become more permissive, or at least more cynical, yet there are equally those who remain genuinely shocked at that transformation.

It is the easiest charade and the laziest journalism in the world to confect an outrage by simply placing work A in front of reactionary, socially conservative group B, whip up a few headlines and pretend you are having a debate that the 90 per cent of people in the middle might actually care about. Everyone wins – free PR, righteous outrage.

Against this background of constant shock and confected outrage, it isn’t easy to work out what is and isn’t shocking in art any more. The art world can be a very poor barometer of it.

The line between what is yawn-inspiring within the boundaries of the art world and what might whip up a furore outside can seem almost random at times. The art community itself can be shocked.

The Bill Henson case is an obvious example. Australians are very concerned about the sexualisation of children. As the once-hidden world of paedophilia has become more frankly acknowledged, the public saw the artwork differently.

The shock was partially but not purely a beat-up. A genuine debate seemingly came from almost nowhere. In hindsight, the lack of controversy over Henson’s entire body of work in the previous two decades is a testament to changing values. The ABC dug out old TV specials that everyone had seemingly missed, the then-opposition leader admitted to owning a Henson or two (though not one of the questionable ones), while galleries around the country suddenly reported angry letters demanding the removal of works that had been hanging without incident or reaction for many years.

Real shocks – like the public response to the Henson debate – are ones that come from a genuine clash of values. The most shocking things have some sort of uncomfortable underlying truth or question to them. So little is hidden these days, it’s hard for most artists courting controversy to claim they are bringing things out into the light.

For the art world, that the public was discovering something “hidden” that they had always seen in plain sight made it extremely difficult to process the debate.

Should artists strive to shock? Probably not, but that’s not to say that artists should be afraid of it either. I’ve met many artists – mostly bad ones – who enjoy cultivating controversy. They are probably no different from shock-jocks and self-seeking celebrities.

Yet I’ve experienced art from documentary photography to heart-wrenching literature, and compelling cinema that can shock through simply representing the reality of a familiar and brutal world.

When every second comedian is busting out a bunch of swear words, every second show has a provocative title, and every PR person is pushing their clients as outrageous, it can take an artist’s insight to burst through our cynicism and ensure we are shocked occasionally. Offended is easy, cynical is constant, but shocked is pretty darn hard.

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