Contemporary art has a reputation for shock. The accusation that an artist merely seeks to shock has become a staple of commentary on contemporary art, used today with the frequency and breadth that once characterised the accusation of elitism. And like elitism before it, shock stands at the threshold between art and the general public. So much so that it can often seem that the populist condemnation of shocking art is made out of love for both art and the general public. Although the concept of shock contrasts with that of elitism in so far as it connotes low tastes and formulaic ploys, it has nonetheless replaced elitism as the tabloids' shorthand for unpopular art.
Shock in art unlocks all manner of pent up frustrations, from the nostalgic aesthete such as Hilton Kramer, who sees shock in art as proof of contemporary art's lack of serious ambition, to the media activist such as Stewart Home, for whom art's shock is the byproduct of a radical assault on culture. Shock is the nerve we press to get at the most severe controversies in art. Rants over the public funding of contemporary art and its museums, disputes over the education of art and art history, and media storms over prominent exhibitions and celebrity artists--these and other dilemmas are more often than not today couched in terms of the ostensive shock-effects of art. Hence, it is worth suggesting, the question of shock in art is not a debate about shock at all, it is a debate about art waged in terms of shock. Shock is the stick we use to beat up our cultural opponents.
According to its enemies, shock can be nothing other than a trivialisation of art. It is the aesthetic equivalent of a fast buck or a cheap trick. At bottom, the suspicion is that shock is uncomplicated, superficial, coarse, showy, vulgar--in a word, philistine. The antagonism runs along the fault-line of one of art's main fissures. Accusing the Avant Garde of shock tactics has almost always been the conservative art lover's defensive gesture against radical ideas and hybrid cultural forms. Taking the high moral ground in this way portrays the Avant Garde as little more than juvenile, attention-seeking, short-termist, philistine troublemakers, irritants and exhibitionists. There are few more effective ways of cloaking an aggressive hegemonic clampdown.
This rhetoric quietly and surreptitiously escorts avant-garde art out of contention as art proper. Now, we can see, a gap opens between art that shocks on one hand, and supposedly genuine art on the other--a gap between shock and awe. This is nothing new, of course, conservatives and nostalgics have always sought to throw avant-gardism out of the spiritual homes of art. What requires attention here is not the goal, which is transparent enough, but the triumph of the conservative spin on the concept of shock in art, which has come to prevail without conspicuous opposition. Shock has taken on those connotations conferred on it by those who oppose it and which confirm that it has no legitimate place within art.
Much of the debate on shock in art fails to dwell on the conception of shock that is being criticised or defended because it is merely a preliminary to the actual object of discussion, the state of contemporary art. Typical remarks might be that 'being shocking or offensive or just anti-art [is] the safest approach an artist could take', as Lynne Munson claims in her recent book Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance, or as Roger Kimball stated in a 1999 lecture, the 'prevailing situation is one that is good for cultural hucksters but bad for art'. Blasting all contemporary art as merely shock-seeking, as well as being an indiscriminate one-size-fits-all judgement, closes off and prevents the serious examination of shock in art. Shock, therefore, is simultaneously among the most conspicuous and most obscure concepts in contemporary cultural reception.
The accusation was rare before the Avant Garde took art by the scruff of the neck at the dawn of modernity. …