Guest judge and controversial photographer Andres Serrano said it: “It isn’t easy to shock on demand.”
So how did the participants fare in last evening’s Work of Art, given the challenge of creating a piece intended to shock? With few exceptions, they did about what I would expect, resorting to childish interpretations of adult world no-no’s: using bodily excretions, genitalia, and the nude body to make their statements and their artworks.
Must “shock” be schlock?
I’m not a fan of shock art, with its stated intention to achieve social commentary through disturbing means. Nor am I a fan of Andres Serrano, known for his unusual materials – menstrual blood, urine, and excrement among them.
His 2008 exhibition, Shit, is case in point. If, as he says, everyone thinks their shit is the best shit, then I guess he makes his point. But I find it silly, walking away holding my nose, bothered by the fact that this is exactly the sort of thing that makes most traditional art viewers gag – literally – when confronted with contemporary art.
And that’s a shame. Because some “shock art,” including Serrano’s, is stunning. His 1987 work, Piss Christ, is an excellent example. It is an image of a plastic crucifix, photographed in a wash of urine. Obviously, it caused a stir when it was exhibited 20 years ago. And yet I do consider this art.
If you watched the show on Bravo last evening, you noticed not only this image but others in the background, their large scale and vivid colors magnifying their power. It’s hard not to be struck by their surreal quality, their in-your-face beauty, and yes – the provocative nature of their content.
Is Piss Christ offensive?
Some may find it to be, though consider this perspective:
Sister Wendy Beckett, an art critic and Catholic nun, stated in a television interview with Bill Moyers that she regarded the work as not blasphemous but a statement on “what we have done to Christ”: that is, the way contemporary society has come to regard Christ and the values he represents.**
In my opinion, “shock value” is a legitimate artistic tool to push our boundaries to examine social, psychological and other phenomena. Personally, I enjoy creative exploration that tackles uneasy themes. But the work of art itself must still “work,” with visual and sensory stature.
Smart or tart?
So why do I say that many of Work of Art’s contestants took the childish route? Artists using bodily fluids is nothing new; there is no particular appeal to Nicole’s blood, hair, and nail samples to create her science fair entry. Likewise, we shake our heads at Miles musing on the occasion of his first erection (Little Mermaid, go figure), followed by concocting a penis-patterned Disney Mickey topped off with the artist’s own semen.
As for other attempts at controversy, we have Jaclyn resorting to nudity (again), and there’s little originality when it comes to nudes in contemporary art or in art history. If anything, Nao in the nude would have been more shocking to American sensibilities, and Jaclyn posing in a performance piece would have been sufficiently out of character to surprise us.
Hot or not?
John’s Recluse (with its Outsider Art approach to auto-fellatio) had little shock value – except perhaps that Bravo TV blurred out the simplistically rendered penis. Nao’s almost-ran installation could have been effective, had she been more focused in her theme, and edited elements of the performance. (I admit, I’m sorry to see her exit so soon.)
I will give Ryan credit for creating a competent (if campy) painting, and Nicole’s effort, Vial (better titled Vile?) nonetheless reflects an interesting work process of molding hacked off body parts for her macabre display. As for Mark Velasquez, his concept was more mature – a triptych (three-part) of framed objects – the remnants of torn clothing, underwear, and a popped balloon – intended to provoke a disturbing reaction to the realities of child abuse.
So why did Abdi garner the winning nod?
His considerably quieter offering, I. E. D. (Improvised Explosive Device), a trio of small scale sculpted heads, draws us to them. Set directly on the floor, note that China Chow kneels in front of them, to get a closer look. They don’t shout their message, they invite us to examine it – even to bow down to it. They offer a consistent visual expression of the dark and tacit ways in which anger ferments, and ultimately may explode.
They work as art, not crap – literally and figuratively.
For more on Bravo TV’s Work of Art: