Should Art Shock?

‘Sunset’ Caspar David Friedrich. 1830-35 Hermitage Museum


When were you last shocked?

It’s much more likely it was a real life event not an art gallery visit that did it. Real life is far more shocking than any art I have ever seen. A ‘twin towers’ moment, a sudden bereavement, a crime close to home, these are shocking. People hold their cheeks, cover their mouths, are silent or scream. I have never seen that happen in an art gallery.

In an art gallery what emotions are you likely to experience? Perhaps you have been disgusted, or provoked, delighted or absorbed.  Shock is unlikely, unless perhaps you were looking at Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son (1823)  or his Los Caprichos. But even then what is called ‘aesthetic distance’ allows us to evaluate the image, not just have an emotional reaction to it.

Art can have tremendous emotional power. It can be dark and dreadful. Goya is not the only case here. Hieronymos Bosch (1450-1516) had a dreadfully macabre imagination shared with us through his images. Art doesn’t shirk from dealing with the extremes of human emotion. Conversely, art can be tranquil in the extreme, can make us feel as if the world is an harmonious whole, as Caspar David Freidrich has shown (above).

However the primary purpose of art is not to elicit emotion.

“The function of art is not to transmit feeling so that others may experience the same feeling, That is only the function of the crudest forms of art  …melodrama, sentimental fiction and the like.The real function of art is to express feeling and transmit understanding.” Herbert Read The Meaning of Art

So where did this idea come from – that art should be shocking? Why do artists and curators seem to want us to be uncomfortable? It’s an idea that has its roots in nineteenth and early twentieth century avant garde movements. These were credible in their context. Artists wrote manifestos, railed against the establishment, urged disruption and change. Ideas as divergent and sometimes repugnant as the Futurist’s rhetoric of the ‘cleansing machinery of war’ to Dada’s ‘theatre of the absurd’ where poems and performances tried and succeeded in being absolute nonsense, were born. Nothing you can see in an art gallery today can have that kind of impact as we do not live in that context. We live instead in a world where so many bizarre opinions are competing for our attention we often just glance, shrug and move on.

Yet contemporary exhibitions frequently set out to ‘shock’ their audiences. We are not discomforted for our entertainment (that would be superficial), but for our moral improvement. It’s a tactic embedded in paternalism.  Art has usurped the role of the church. We need to go through that discomfort to emerge purified, savvy. Our supposed complacency (sin) must be removed. This has become the moral compulsion of the twenty-first century curator. One could just issue them with cattle prods. They have become the very moralisers the avant garde sought to overthrow.

Aesthetics and ethics are very closely related. Art is always a statement of value. But it isn’t always right or true. And sometimes it’s just as effective when it whispers.


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