Inside Shock Art

Inside Shock Art

Vanessa Silberman

It may be shocking, but is it art? Galleries and collectors seem to think so. What does the future hold for provocative, in-your-face art?

Mention the term “shock art” and watch heads turn. After all, one need not be a New Yorker to remember the controversy that exploded two years ago when the shock-filled “Sensation” exhibit came to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Following its debut at the Royal Academy in London, the compelling exhibit, consisting of work by a group of young British artists (known as YBA or Brit pack), made headlines nationwide for including works that offended many, such as Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary,” which featured a black Virgin Mary with elephant feces on one breast and cutouts from pornographic magazines glued in the background, and Damien Hirst’s dead animal’s preserved in formaldehyde. A wealth of protesters, including Mayor Giuliani, vehemently opposed the exhibit, calling it “filth” and “obscene” while supporters claimed it was “thought-provoking” and “cutting-edge.”

Today, the debate surrounding shock art is no less heated. Critics call it cultural pollution while defenders valiantly argue that pieces like Tom Sachs’ electric chair or Vanessa Beecroft’s installations of naked models are imbedded with social commentary. It’s true we live in a shock-driven society–just look at the news, movies, t.v. shows and music popular across America. Is it any wonder that shock tactics would make it into the art world? People are used to experiencing shock and, in a way, have become numb to it.

But as Peter Surace, co-owner of the Rare Gallery in New York with partner Alexis Hubshman, explained: “If you concentrate on the shock value of anything too much, you don’t get beneath the surface to the more important issues that are trying to be raised … Sometimes shock value is what the artist uses to get you to look at the work, but then they also expect you to dig deeper.”

In any case, one thing remains certain: art that shocks is proving immensely popular with collectors, galleries, auction houses and museums. One can’t help but wonder if the fascination with the shocking is merely a novelty or if it represents where the art world is heading. Throughout history, artists have created works that confront viewers and seem shocking in their efforts to make a statement about society (think of Gericault’s 1818 “Severed Limbs,” Goya’s 1808 “Saturn Devouring Its Own Children,” Manet’s 1863 “Olympia,” and Picasso’s 1907 “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”). Their shock value has been diluted over time, but they were every bit as attention grabbing as the works in question. Today, these works are considered masterpieces and are worth millions of dollars. Who’s to say the same won’t happen with the art of today?

The Market for Shock Art

Some people may gripe that the art world has become shock-obsessed. As art critic Lynne Munson wrote in Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance, “Shock art is the safest kind of art than an artist can go into the business of making today.”

And she may be right. At the fall 2000 New York sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips, new records were set by contemporary artists dealing with provocative subject matter. At Christie’s, for example, Maurizio Cattelan’s “Untitled” (1990), a taxidermied ostrich with his head in the floor, sold for $270,000. At Phillips, Damien Hirst’s “Dead Ends Died Out” (1993), a vitrine filled with cigarette butts, sold for $508,500, while his diptych with butterflies, “In Love–Out of Love” (1998) fetched $750,000.

In addition, shock art is increasing its presence on the museum circuit–an indication, perhaps, that controversial art gets people in the doors. The Royal Academy in London recently held “Apocalypse,” a sequel to the “Sensation” exhibit (which attracted 300,000 visitors), which featured a sexually explicit video and a model pope being struck by a meteorite, among other works. Another recent exhibit, “Disasters of War” at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, N.Y., examined the tradition of the grotesque in art, surveying the work of Francisco de Goya, and contemporaries Henry Darger and the English sculptors Jake and Dinos Chapman, who specialize in art that shocks.

Galleries who exhibit controversial art have experienced enormous success, and the last few years have seen more and more galleries climb on board. One can not speak about the market for shock art without mentioning Charles Saatchi, the advertising tycoon-turned art collector who opened the Saatchi Gallery in London in the 1990s. He has been instrumental in bringing controversial work to the public’s attention (the works in “Sensation” came from his personal collection) and has launched the careers of many Young British Artists. He has also been responsible for putting many of these works on the market and has exposed these artists to galleries around the world.

The Gagosian Gallery, with locations in New York, London and Beverly Hills, recently held a New York show of works by Damien Hirst. More than 90 percent of Hirst’s works sold, according to the gallery.

The Gagosian Gallery has also held successful shows for Vanessa Beecroft and Jenny Saville, among others. Beecroft, whose installations have been hosted by museums and galleries throughout the world, creates performance pieces that recall sex fantasies. Her pieces feature groups of live, young pale-skinned models, often naked from the waist down and with a blank expression on their faces. Meanwhile, Saville’s massive paintings often feature obese naked women shown from uncomfortable angles, as in “Plan.” Her show at the Gagosian recently received first place by the U.S. Art Critics awards.

The Rare Gallery, which exhibits emerging artists and has served as the exclusive representative of Anthony Goicolea’s provocative photographs for the past two years, is also finding success with buyers.

“Goicolea’s work has received favorable attention from both a critical and collector’s standpoint. It’s attracted established and young collectors who are just starting out,” said Surace.

Using digital manipulation, Goicolea’s multiple portraits feature the artist playing more than one character within a single photo. “Each photograph depicts a semi-artificial world which is simultaneously humorous and horrific,” wrote the artist. “I am able to clone myself and create scenarios in which I act out childhood incidents such as fight scenes, first kisses, and deranged play dates … many of them are engaged in spitting, licking, peeing or fighting.”

“They may seem shocking to people” said Surace, “but if you look under the surface, you see that he is really talking about important issues of what it means to grow up in an adult world and the fears and frightening things that you face growing up.” He continued, “Most people who collect his work understand his work. You can only lead a horse to water, you can’t make him drink.”

Mary Boone Gallery in New York has also hosted a number of controversial artists. Tom Sachs, for example (whose electric chair is featured on page 154), was responsible for a “Kill All Artists” campaign and used live ammunition in a show at Boone’s gallery (which landed Boone in jail for a night).

Still, it is unfair to assume that the artists creating “shock” art do so with the sole intention of shocking the viewer or gaining publicity. Often times, their message lies deeper. While many shock artists seem to embrace and cultivate their image as social dissidents, upon further inspection one realizes a loftier goal: to reveal hypocrisy, question the status quo, and show that life isn’t always beautiful.

Shock Art in the Mainstream

There’s no doubt about it: shock art is a hot sell among high-end collectors, galleries, auction houses and museums. The questions remains whether this kind of art will hit the print market, and if so, whether it will enter the homes of mainstream America. Hirst, for example, sells limited editions of his work.

Buster Baba of Grand Image in Seattle does not think that mainstream America can ever live with this kind of art work. “They can see it as a novelty or as social commentary … but it’s not something anyone is comfortable living with” she said. “Social commentary and shock art play the same role: They evoke thoughts and deep emotion about something, but I still think the mainstream art buyer will not put this in their homes.”

Baba, who has 15 years experience in the art market, continued: “This isn’t the kind of art that people feel good about. It isn’t soothing or contemplative. I think mainstream buyers will go for the more `traditional’ work in the contemporary art market” But she was quick to add, “I hope this art always continues.”

It’s true that every period in art history has had controversial artists. “The great art survives,” said Surace. “Eventually the controversy subsides, and the cooler heads prevail.”

As Norman Rosenthal wrote in the catalog of Sensation, “It has always been the job of artists to conquer territory that hitherto has been taboo.” And the artists mentioned here are but a few of the many who are doing just that.

It also proves that we are not suffering from what Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times calls “compassion fatigue.” At the end of the day, we should be thankful there are still some things left in this world that give us a jolt, challenge our beliefs and remind us of the one thing that binds us together: our humanity.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Summit Business Media

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning