Art has been for decades subject of criticism for being often ‘over the top’. Artistic provocation is very common: is it the artist’s way to stimulate the audience or simply bad taste?
Words: Costanza Maraffio, Subeditor: Bea Renshaw
Cynthia Cruz, the 2014/2015 Goldsmiths Studio Award winner presented her collection “The Girl Who Ate All Her Hair” at the Acme Project Space in Bethnal Green for the very first time. And, not for the first time, an art exhibition created controversies.
Cruz placed a variety of technological devices, paintings, special effects make-up and even rubbish in the exhibition, juxtaposing them with pictures from the internet involving nudity and people harming themselves in order to symbolize the 21st century’s most dramatic issues, seeking to represent the dark side of her life and that of others.
The purpose of her contemporary art is said to shock and stun audiences, and to create a thin line between banter and repulsion (for example, she placed junk -food waste, old toys and clothes- in the middle of the room, covering it with black paint). The collection has already been on display for a week, and critics and their opinions haven’t gone a miss. The comment varied from “a brilliant way of representing personal fights”, to “disturbing and confusing”.
Nowadays, art is often subject of criticism. Why does this happen?
Maybe it is because the purpose of art is to send a strong message, and be the source of scandal and provocation. It is not easy to underline what is acceptable in the world of art, and what exactly it means to use it in order to break the pre-established order. In the past, the purpose of art was beauty, aesthetics, for the pleasure of both the eye and the mind. It involved the spirit and the sensitivity of who is watching. However, in modern society, the main purpose of art is intellectual provocation: artists completely entrust the critical abilities of the spectator, omitting harmony and perfection. With this mind, even the most subversive pieces manage to represent our time.
There are thousands of examples of contemporary art with sexual references that were seen as unnecessary provocations by the general public. Like Paul McCarthy’s Santa Claus in Rotterdam: a black sculpture of a dwarf holding a tree resembling the shape of a phallus. Or, even more famous, his Christmas Tree in Place Vendôme in Paris, which was an inflatable sculpture of 24 meters with a clear reference to a butt plug. The tree did not last long, as it was deflated by someone after two days. McCarthy himself admitted that he had done it on purpose, but citizens did not get his “joke”, thinking it was ruining the historic square. The latter is a clear example of an artwork that originated with the sole purpose of creating scandal, instead of representing the subject or concept.
Sometimes, however, the only way to be talked about is to create a scandal. In the 20th century, provocation became the main way in which artists would get attention for their work. This trend is continuing in the new millennium.
The 21st century is a century “against”, and all art resulting is born from an attitude of confrontation and antithesis. At the end of a century full of contradictions (a century that has built and destroyed at the same time), contemporary art seems to be characterised by a continuous search for the new, becoming contradicting itself and sometimes not understandable by the public. This is a need of experimentation, brought to the extreme in the name of delusions, of omnipotence, and excessive trust in the creative act. It risks its own obliteration not only from the past, but also from the present.
Provocation and transgression, and excesses and exaggeration are the strong methods through which many artists try to be heard. This seems to be working, otherwise artists such as Damien Hirst and Cecily Brown wouldn’t be as famous. As Oliviero Toscani, one of Italy’s most famous photographers said: “Contemporary art is based on transgression, provocation. We are so integrated, busy being all the same that provocation is the only one to create doubt”.