The Art world into question
It’s no surprise that the Art world has seen countless numbers of events that shook up the status quo. Within any conversation is a dissenting voice, and sometimes that voice is tailor-made to hit to the very heart of established viewpoints.
The art world has always functioned in this same way – a movement gains legitimacy, the movement grows and expands, then dissenters within that movement create a schism of sorts that lead to a new movement. The art world is the never-ending march of progress and the almost clearly defined ‘line’ connecting the very first art styles and pieces to the most cutting-edge contemporary pieces is proof of this.
In a thought, this means that some of the most important people in any given movement are the ones that decide to shake it up and cause controversy. This article will examine some famous examples of this and put their work into context. Without these brave souls bucking trends, the value of art itself becomes diminished – after all, can one really call any kind of art exciting, interesting and relevant if it’s comprised entirely of what came before?
The scandalous treatment of the naked body – MICHELANGELO (1475-1564)
Art world scandals aren’t new, nor are they reserved for art that purposefully meant to shock. After being commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s work, The Last Judgement, never sat right with his Catholic patrons.
The piece itself is aptly named and focuses solely on the day of Judgement as imagined by Christian dogma. The blessed and the damned are being judged, and the equalization of their status, wealth, and power is clearly evident as all of the figures in the piece are stripped (literally and figuratively) of their trappings and judged.
After two decades had passed since the completion of the piece, the Council of Trent began to enforce restraint in the religious imagery of the land and targeted nudes with a concerted effort. The genitals in The Last Judgement had all been covered over with various artificial trappings to ease the conscious of the morally affronted. Established religious officials stating that it was a disgrace to have nudity in places of worship cemented the piece’s fate.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the fresco was to be restored, including the elimination of the censored areas. While not every aspect of the painting could be recovered, the attempt to reinvigorate and uncensored an ancient piece of art was a noble one.
The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe) by Edouard Manet
Composed in Paris, in 1866, this masterpiece depicts two fully clothed men sitting with a nude woman in the middle of a park. On the face of it, to contemporary standards, this might seem like a rather unassuming painting – other than the strange juxtaposition of a nude woman sitting with fully-clothed men, the scene is peaceful and pastoral. Beyond the Art world, it created a critical society debate at that time.
After being rejected by the Salon, Manet specifically went on to exhibit this and two other pieces at the Salon des Refusés, where it went on to create a national controversy.
The issue with the painting, for the 19th century Parisians, was that it not only flew in the face of many artistic conventions, it also commented on uncomfortable social truths that plagued the city. Criticisms stemming from the unfinished nature of elements of the scene to the visible brush strokes gave many an ‘academic’ argument. The painting also utilized an oversized canvas that was usually ‘reserved’ for more epic art – that of historical, mythological and religious topics.
Socially, the blatant depiction of what was seen as a piece condoning prostitution was found highly objectionable in the institutions. A nude woman so casually eating with two fully-clothed men was an affront to the sensibilities of the public elite at the time, despite these practices happening around them every day.
Of course, like a true revolutionary act, the creation of this piece and the drama that ensued afterward was a catalyst for change and it influenced artists that came after Manet: Paul Cézanne, for instance, painted a similarly themed piece, identically titled Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Even though it is uncertain whether he was the one who titled the painting or not, the imagery and subject matter are very much akin to the original. The painting also inspired Picasso, who would go on to merge controversy and cubism in his masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Fountain by Marcel Duchamp
One of the most famous works of modern art, and certainly one of the most recognizable, the urinal on its side – a ‘Fountain’ – was Duchamp’s provocative entry into the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. The piece is a regular porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt 1917” and tipped over for ease of presentation.
The fact this piece was submitted to an art world show, which had the proviso of featuring any artist that paid the fee, was an almost direct attack on the establishment of art itself – if we allow everything to be passed without scrutiny, by what right can you deny entry to any particular piece? The society directors denied the piece, because a piece of sanitary ware that dealt exclusively in the removal of bodily waste, could not be considered a work of art – not to mention the indecent nature of the work itself.
Front and center was the obvious problem: how does a board at once say that any piece of art can be admitted, but then also attempt to derive value-based standards on art? Needless to say, this instantly sparked controversy in the artistic community, debating the relative merits of a piece such as this.
Of course, since then the piece has garnered significant acclaim and conversation. In December 2004, for instance, it was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century, by a panel of 500 British art professionals. This piece is credited for inventing Conceptual art, and blurred the notion that art and labor are intertwined. This opened the door for all kinds of performance art and other abstract works – after all, art is conceptual and just because someone labors over a piece doesn’t necessarily make it successful.
The Fountain’s influence lives on to this day and all objective discussions of what makes art ‘art’ are almost doomed to failure because of it. It seems that anything can be art with the proper context and intent, and The Fountain shows us how narrow that line really is.
Helena & El Pescador by Marco Evaristti
In an almost assured attempt to garner controversy, Evaristti’s exhibit of goldfish swimming in ten blenders in 2000 was a shoe-in for dramatics. The fixture was exactly what you’d think – ten blenders with goldfish inside. Visitors were given a choice: Hit on, or don’t.
Whether it be curiosity or malice, people did, in fact, turn the blenders on. This, of course, sparked all kinds of outrage at the concept of the piece including the museum director Peter Meyers being charged with animal cruelty. While acquitted, the installation nonetheless had a resounding influence on the art world, on the nature of art.
As another wholly conceptual work, in a similar vein of Duchamp’s Fountain, this work criticizes and examines something more primal – human nature itself, instead of something more abstract like an artistic community. The question of turning on the blenders is both reflexively abhorrent and intriguing, because when faced with buttons we should not press, we tend to press them.
Evaristti emphatically points out that his installation was to “force people to do battle with their conscience” and that it was utilized to “place people before a dilemma: to choose between life and death.”
Indeed, and in giving the option, not everyone will act the same way. The installation might seem an egregious use of a concept to shock and garner attention, but it also reflects upon a useful truism, which is that people who want to press the button most certainly exist. They’re probably more numerous than we’d think (Indeed, we could find out that we are amongst them).
The Art world is a continually shifting movement
These examples of art that shocked, offended, and appalled the populace at large are only a few from a tradition as old as humanity itself. There will always be necessary, catalyzing forces for change and making shocking art is simply one example of this in action. In a healthy dialogue, dissenting, often shocking voices are important to listen to, not only because of their ability to make us think about our own values, but for their ability to look at the inside from without. Having an outside opinion on a conversation or belief is useful in order to change, even if that opinion comes from a perceived obscenity. The art world is a constantly shifting movement that will always strive to be provocative, because human beings are never one to rest easy at artificial boundaries. These pieces are important not only for their historical value, they’re important because they say something about us that we need to hear – that sometimes we need a shock to progress.