What People Don't Get About "Shocking Art"
I recently published a new sketch on Facebook, a study for an upcoming work:
One viewer went so far as to report the image to FB, but FB ultimately decided that it did not violate their standards. I wished aloud that the person who reported me had started a dialog instead, but, then I realized the issue is far too large to be addressed in a Facebook post. It seems that challenging work by all kinds of artists has the potential to elicit feelings of anger or trauma from those who are not accustomed to these images, and dismissal or cynicism from those who are entrenched in the Art World. Both inside and outside the Art World, there seem to be people who regard shocking art as merely an attention-getting device or publicity stunt, and I believe, with few exceptions, that this is simply untrue.
Each artist has their own process, their own unique obsessions and concerns. Some artist's interests will simply never lead them to make work that might be considered controversial. Their work may be even more potent and art historically important than work that might be considered "shocking", but unfortunately, we live in a society that sensationalizes everything. As a result, artists whose concerns and obsessions drive them to make work that is more sexual or political tend to get more exposure and more discussion surrounding their work. It's not fair, but there it is. Twice in my career, I have received over-the-top, glowing endorsements from other artists in professional situations, but they have felt the need to add a phrase about the fact that I "sometimes make art that provokes", and, in both cases, it was worded as a kind of accusation. To "sell-out" or compromise the integrity of your work is the worst indictment one can make about an artist, so I believe those kinds of statements should never be used in an off-handed way. I often use the the phrase "to trust someone as an artist" when I am referring to unwavering artistic integrity. I firmly believe that serious artists, for whom art making is a kind of addiction, as well as the way that they process information from the world, cannot really "help" the kind of art that they make. They are simply on a path, driven to distill, to find ever stronger or more effective ways to convey their own, unique vision. Barnett Newman once said, “Aesthetics is to artists what ornithology is to birds." Artists, like birds, are simply driven by their nature to "do what they do".
My particular modus operandi is to tell difficult truths, in a formally seductive way. My goal is to create "the beautiful gut punch". When I am in the studio, I make the work that needs to be made, the work that seems most urgent and relevant to the world that I am living in, and how I perceive it. It is an addiction, really, this need to say what needs to be said (as those who are close to me know): I could not exist if I was not able to process information this way. I read about and experience things that are happening in the world, and, because of the way that I am wired, the stories enter my body in a violent, visceral way, and they often stay there. (From talking to my friends, I believe many artists experience this and are what I call "super empaths"... I have one friend who describes it as being "too porous".) Most people I know try to forget about these news stories through distraction, by turning on the TV or reading a magazine, but, for me, those distractions don't work: the stories of man's inhumanity towards other beings plant their hooks in me, and stay. Once something has pierced my consciousness, I turn it around in my mind... for days, weeks, or even years, I revisit the thoughts, looking for a way to transform them, get them out of my body in a way that will get others to feel, look and think about the absurd and problematic world we find ourselves in. When I am in the studio, it is my job to create the strongest, most layered work possible to get viewers to put down those beloved distractions and confront the work, which is also, in essence, confronting aspects of the world they might not want to think about. We are a society that is awash in images from dawn till dusk.... it is a real challenge as an artist to break through that noise to permeate a viewer's consciousness.
If an artist was to worry about who would be upset by the work they create, nothing would EVER get made. When I am in the studio, I DO think about how people might receive the work, but only to help me make decisions about the most effective way to communicate my concept. Our job as artists is to make a series of thoughtful decisions about medium, technique, mood, and formal elements like size, scale, composition, palette, etc. that will maximize the feeling or concept we are trying to convey.
While in the confines of the studio, I never think about my work with an eye towards potential sales, publicity or controversy. One of the reasons I make representational art is that I want the work to function on many levels, to be accessible to those who have no art education, but be layered enough to engage those who have access to a contemporary art context. I am aware that by making the work in a visual language that is easily read, at least on a superficial level, there is the potential of some people to miss the point or be offended when I try to tackle a difficult subject, but making people angry or upset is not my intention. It simply is not a workable paradigm to create art that is designed to shock: it raises all kinds of problems for the artist.
"If you approach art with the intention of creating shock value, then you limit yourself and your audience, and will be put in the unenviable position of trying to top yourself with each succeeding effort. However, if you allow the process of creation to unfold in a more subjective manner, let the subconscious guide the pathway, and by chance shocking images present themselves, then you are released from the responsibility of intent. You no longer need the burden of expression to outdo yourself in a shocking manner - and it is of no purpose to focus merely on shock value for its own sake. Let the images give rise to their own intentions." - Richard Misiano-Genovese
Once artists are expected to shock, it's that much harder for them to do so. - Jerry Saltz
BUT it is important to note, once the work is done, I put on a completely different hat, and try to get the work "out there". I currently teach a workshop called "Publicity Hat" that espouses this philosophy... make the art that needs to be made without worrying about what others will think, then, if you believe in the work, rack your brain to think of ways to get it out into the world. Like many artists, until my mid-thirties, I just made the best work I could, had exhibitions, and "hoped someone would notice" what I was doing. One day, I had an epiphany... despite all I was taught about the virtues of humility, I am the best advocate for what I create. I believed my work was really strong, and, from reviews and personal responses, it seemed that others agreed with me, and I decided to do everything that I could to get my work seen once it left my studio. It was, in part, a feminist issue.... I noticed that many successful male artists seemed to have no problem blowing their own horn and going to great lengths to promote their work. I believe my work is important and relevant, and I want to maximize the potential for people I respect to see it. I can't tell you how many times I have shown my work to a curator and they have said, "I wish I knew about this work when I was putting together my show last year..." I do everything that I can to reduce the possibility of missing more opportunities like that, because, as any artist could tell you, there are few things more maddening.
So, that's my particular formula for my art career: make the strongest art I possibly can, work that tells the truth about the world I live in, with no regard for sales, publicity, etc., then take that work that I believe in, and get as many people as possible to see it.
I get why people are cynical about art they find challenging: we live in a celebrity culture where people seem to be doing ever more outrageous things to "stay on people's radar". I have even met a few artists (but only 2 or 3, in my lifetime of knowing thousands of artists) who have told me outright that they were just making work because they wanted to "piss people off", or because their dealer suggested they should "make one with penises on it". But, here it is......
MOST ARTISTS, NO MATTER WHAT KIND OF WORK THEY DO, ARE NOT SITTING IN THEIR STUDIOS, THINKING "WHAT OUTRAGEOUS THING COULD I DO THAT WILL GET ME MORE ATTENTION, OR CREATE CONTROVERSY?", WE ARE JUST MAKING THE WORK WE ARE COMPELLED TO MAKE.
Case study: In 2006, I painted the work, "Blessed Art Thou".
I come from a Catholic background. I don't practice anymore, but I love the lurid colors and light in all the kitschy Catholic imagery that surrounded me as I grew up. "Blessed Art Thou" began as an impulse... I wanted to create my own assumption painting. I had always loved the imagery of Mary, in her blue robes, rising up through the sky on a cloud surrounded by putti.
I had incorporated some peripheral Catholic imagery into my work before, but I had never done a straightforward "religious" painting, and there was no reason in my mind to simply paint a copy of an Assumption if there were no more layers to it. I was driven to buy a few books on "Mary in Art", and I studied them, looking for an answer. I kept dismissing the idea of doing the painting and putting away all my references because I could not figure out how I could make it "work": make it relevant, contemporary and complex. This cycle happened three or four times before I happened to be standing in line at the supermarket one day, and I looked around me: virtually every magazine cover around me had an image of Angelina Jolie holding a child, or anticipating her new child with Brad Pitt. I knew I had my painting. I researched Angelina Jolie (I did not know much about her), and researched the psychology of celebrity worship, paparazzi, and tabloids. I learned about ties to consumerism and marketing. I thought about the people who seemed to be most consumed by celebrity worship, the people whose lives contrasted most with the idealized lives of our new heroes, our new saints, as depicted in the tabloids. I normally boycott WalMart, but spent some time there studying the oppressive lighting, the postures and mannerisms of the people who shop there. When you are poor, for example, (something I had firsthand experience of) you do not just swipe a credit card to pay: you mentally add up the contents of your cart, check to make sure you have enough cash, and often grip the money tightly in your hand, as if you are afraid it will fly away before you can pay.
I honestly never dreamed anyone would be upset by "Blessed Art Thou." Initially, I thought that, like all the paintings that had come before, it would only be seen by a few hundred people from the art world, if I was lucky.
As conservative Christians railed against my using the face of a "husband-stealing whore" (they knew ALL about her because they had read it in the tabloids!) in the context of an iconic construct, I reminded them that we don't know WHAT Mary actually looked like, and that many of the famous paintings of the Virgin were actually made using prostitutes as models. What was most fascinating to me was that if Christians did not just have a knee jerk reaction, instantly yelling "blasphemy" to a celebrity being represented as the Virgin Mary, if they allowed themselves to really look at the painting and think about it, they would likely agree with some of the major themes in the painting.
I think a lot of "shocking" contemporary art is like that. An open mind, curiosity, and the ability to step outside of one's comfort zone might transform an initially affronted viewer into an accepting or even an admiring one.... I know I have come to love a lot of work that I did not initially understand. An art history class, or even a liberal arts undergraduate education, makes it even easier. For those Americans saddled with an anti-intellectual demeanor, the elitism of the art world may actually be part of the affront, and stand in the way of the viewer actually trusting themselves enough to unpack and read the image.
Of course, when you have studied and taught art for 25 years, there are few art works you find offensive anymore. Upon completion of this work, when I put on my "Publicity Hat", I did understand that "Blessed Art Thou" was different. After creating personal art for several decades, this was a piece that looked outward, rather than inward. This realization caused me to draft a press release that was sent to some of the news sources that might be interested in this subject matter, in addition to my usual list. I was as shocked as anyone when it "went viral", appearing in every major newspaper in the world, many TV news programs, etc. I got lots of love mail, and almost equal amounts of hate mail. I received death threats on my cellphone, and we put in an alarm system. As exciting as it was at the beginning, this painting has its own complex history, and there were many negative things that happened that I never even talk about. I doubt it is the best painting I have ever done, but despite the fact that there are lots of paintings of celebrities out there, this one was in the right place at the right time, and struck a chord. At the time, "helpful" strangers suggested that I hire a publicist. Magazine editors emailed me and wanted to know when the next one would be coming out so they could get "the scoop", etc. Of all the absurd and mean spirited things that were said to me, there was only one that hurt: "She did it for the publicity." After 20 years of making rarely saleable, time consuming, personal work, not compromising my vision in any way, these people who had no concept of me or my lifetime of work accused me of pandering and selling out.
At the time, I had a large cartoon for the next related painting ready to transfer to canvas, and I rolled it up and put it away, because I did not want that kind of publicity for my work. I went back to doing personal work. That is, until last year.
Our family hit a 5 year "rough patch", as many did, in 2008. I continued to make small intimate pieces through a great number of personal difficulties. Meanwhile, I had been gestating a series, on all the worries that kept me awake at night. I felt there must be a common root to so many of the world's problems, and wanted to investigate it. Sometime in 2012, while I continued to embroider about my new status as a mother and the familial dysfunctionality that has long informed my work, I started research for a new series that would investigate entitlement, and the need to dominate. The ongoing bibliography of my research that feeds this work (now over two year's worth) is so vast that I started documenting it at a certain point, and, when the work is finished, I will publish it. I combed through "On The Origin of Species" by Darwin, and the subsequent reframing of his concepts by Julian Huxley. Huxley was the one who emphasized "survival of the fittest", and this is the mantra we accept as the excuse for a lot of human's dominating behavior. In contrast, Darwin actually only mentioned this concept only a few times, buried amidst hundreds of mentions of "love" and "cooperation". I read contemporary scientific articles further confirming that animals are much more democratic and cooperative than we ever suspected. For two years, I read about (and looked at countless images related to) trophy hunting, rape culture, corporate crimes, pornography, mass shootings, and serial killing, and it was emotionally debilitating. By the end, I came very close to checking myself into a psych ward for the first time in my life, but I was also excited by my discoveries and the prospect of this new series: the significance of my direction seemed to be reinforced daily by current events.
My lack of an adequate home painting studio allowed me an unusual amount of time to gestate this work before actually making it. I finally was able to afford a warehouse space last Summer, and, by that time, I saw that the series was going to take me 2-3 years to realize. I have never had a clearer vision for a body of work. Although some may claim that it is not possible to do something new in this day and age, after all my research I feel confident that a few of the things I am trying to do are unprecedented.
So, this image that has already begun to elicit some backlash is a sketch for a future work called "POV", and here is how it came to be:
"POV" is a porn term for "point of view", except my image depicts the point of view of a woman, which is rarely, if ever, shown in heterosexual porn. (If you've never taken an art history class, you might want to acquaint yourself with some information about "The Male Gaze" as background to this piece.) The finished work (as opposed to this sketch/study for part of the finished painting) will be, among other things, a metaphor for power relationships in society at large, and a way to begin looking at the entitlement and misogyny that is often present in rape culture and pornography, a subject that we never get to talk about because it instantly devolves into conversations about censorship. There are many images of penises in art, but there are few, if any, images that depict nude males from this point of view conceptually. As with a lot of my work, there is also some humor here: visually, as well as conceptually, I am interested in how the head is partially eclipsed by the penis. The dark background is significant, as is the fact that the figure is shown at an angle, and the oval frame also hangs on the wall at an angle, to further disorient the viewer. It is tedious to spell this all out for people, like a shopping list, but the point is...
I did NOT just walk into the studio one day and say, "Let me do something really provocative that will stir up some trouble, upset my family, and, if I'm really lucky, get me banned from Facebook, my greatest art distribution resource. I know! A penis! If that doesn't work, I will try something else... a bigger penis, or maybe three of them!"
As a matter of fact, as I pointed out earlier, a savvy artist is going to think twice about using a penis in their work, because it would be judged and dismissed by some of their peers as being an easy solution to "charging up" a work, but I believe it to be absolutely necessary in the series that I am doing, and would not be putting forth my highest truth if I did not do what the work requires.
I am beginning to believe that non-artists think that a certain perverse pleasure is derived from upsetting people, and then we simply reap the many benefits of being a "controversial" artist. One of my favorite studio wall quotes is by Susan Sontag, who said, “He who transgresses not only breaks a rule. He goes somewhere that the others are not, and he knows something the others don’t.”
And here's what I know: the reality is, unless you are a top 1% artist, making challenging or confrontational art works is NOT an enviable position: it works AGAINST you in a dozen ways. If people are upset by the first image of your work that they see (even curators), they may never want to delve deeper into your lifetime of work. You are much less likely to sell work that makes people uncomfortable.... no one wants to hang it in their house. You are severely limited in the venues where you can show the work. You might not be hired for some teaching jobs, no matter what your qualifications are. If you are making feminist work (meaning, in this case, work that shows the point-of-view of the 50% of people who make up this planet), your work is labeled as something that "most people" are not going to be interested in. Work that shows a distinctively female point of view is pigeonholed, not considered part of the "mainstream" and might only be shown in Feminist Art spaces that are rarely reviewed and are taken less seriously by the Big Time Art World. If your work DOES get reviewed, you have to hope that the critic is educated/open minded enough to not be dismissive of work that represents a relatively unconventional point of view. In addition, you are always wondering who is Googling you, how much control they might have over your (or your family's) life, how deep they are going, and whether they understand the function of art (likely not). You need a REALLY supportive spouse who believes in what you are doing, and who is not afraid of what others might think. Your work can alienate you from beloved family and friends who don't get what you are trying to do. This makes you feel completely isolated, like a sane, mission-obsessed movie protagonist that everyone thinks is crazy.
I've already been called "The Devil" to my face (by another "artist" in a conservative town). With this particular series, I am bracing myself to be called "an Angry Woman", a feminazi, a pervert (or one of the many words from the "sexually active women" lexicon), and an attention whore. In short, my life would be a LOT easier if I could just go back to painting night landscapes. But I can't. So I harbor the hope that, while the PTA moms might not want to talk to me or have a playdate, my daughter will know that I followed my path in life, did what I thought was right, and even tried, with the knowledge and gifts that I have been given, to make the world a better place for her by raising a few questions.
Some of you are still scratching your heads, wondering, "How does a drawing of a penis make the world a better place?" If you really want to know, follow the link I suggested, read a book on feminist art, take a class... an art history class, a women's studies class. Ask a woman friend how she feels when she looks at my drawing. Ask yourself why marks on a piece of paper upset you so. Ask yourself why another scandalous image such as this one, painted by Courbet and hanging in the Louvre
while still being provocative, might feel less offensive or threatening than mine. I am aware that, as it stands, being only a sketch for a more complex finished work, my drawing might be seen by some only as an erotic image, but if you have occasion to see the final work that this is a study for and it upsets you, remember to ask yourself why you expend energy / get your panties in a twist about a painting, but are not nearly as outraged at the reality that prompted the art to be made... what is happening around us every day, be it manifestations of rape culture, gun worship, mass shootings, corporate destruction of the one planet we live on, the killing for sport or factory farming of sentient animals, misogynistic porn, or any other form of domination.
You know.... the stuff that I find obscene.