Can Art Still Shock?

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Filed under: The Future of Pranks, The History of Pranks

Is Grayson Perry right – can we no longer be outraged by art and literature? From Manet’s Olympia to Pussy Riot and Houellebecq, Adam Thirlwell presents a short history of shock


Can art still shock?
by Adam Thirlwell
The Guardian
23 January 2015

Olympia by Édouard Manet. Photograph: Corbis

Olympia by Édouard Manet. Photograph: Corbis

For a long time, I’ve been nostalgic for the era of shock. It’s with a certain fondness that I reflect on the crazed year of 1857, which began with Gustave Flaubert in court for his first novel, Madame Bovary (in the presence of a stenographer, hired by Flaubert, for the benefit of an incredulous posterity), followed, six months later, by Charles Baudelaire, on trial for his first book of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal. On both occasions, the unlucky prosecutor was Ernest Pinard, who lamented “this unhealthy fever which induces writers to portray everything, to describe everything, to say everything”. The era of grand trials! Or if not trials, then scandales: like the first night of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913, with its catcalling audience; or Duchamp’s impish Fountain – his notorious urinal, signed by R Mutt, submitted to the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917, but rejected by its committee.

I was nostalgic because it seemed to me that shock was no longer possible. Or, perhaps more precisely, shock was no longer admissible. We are all, pronounced Grayson Perry, bohemians now – and therefore unshockable by art. And if this is true, it signals a grand and maybe melancholy shift in the nature of art, and in the relation of art to society. It also appears to me – considering, let’s say, Pussy Riot and Ai Weiwei – a slightly provincial argument. And then came the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

Naturally, the discussion that followed was about the right to offend, and the potential geopolitical imbalances of such offence. But even more urgent it seems is to define what offence might be at all. To be shocking, to be offensive: the meaning of these noble terms might not be obvious. There are so many variants of shock. What might be necessary, for more precise orientation, is some kind of shock genealogy.

And the place to start, both symbolically and historically, is Paris.

Read the rest of this article here.