Friday, May 22, 2009

The merits of shock value


"...did the Second Wave feminist artists do the hard work, allowing their Third Wave feminist counterparts to get away with coasting?"

Resting a lightweight book on my forearm—perfectly positioned between the crook of my arm and my bent wrist—I made the most of standing on the bus yet again. The trick is to avoid turning pages when the bus is in motion. The book was Art: Histories, theories and exceptions by Adam Geczky (Berg, 2008). It is surprisingly comprehensive for such a short book, not only in terms of the span of time it covers but also in terms of geographical coverage.

Initially, I was going to make today’s blog entry about artists writing throughout history. I would present it as a precursor for art blogs, drawing inspiration from Geczy’s section “Writings by artists”, which traces the relationship between creating art and writing about art to Vasari and other Renaissance artists. “Ta-da!” I thought. “This blogging commitment is going to be a cinch.”

As I was skimming through the rest of the book, however, I was stopped in my tracks by video stills and a brief description of a controversial work that was unfamiliar to me: Zhu Yu’s Feeding my own child to a dog. This work shows a dog eating a fetus, which the author astutely sees as a commentary on politically sanctioned infanticide.

It’s rare that I can’t get a work out of my mind. In this case, I suspect it’s because of the sheer power of it, not to mention the visceral reaction I experienced. Beyond those reasons, I think it haunted me because of the artist’s ability to deal so directly with the corporeal realm. I, on the other hand, have used baby clothing to stand in for the human form in my work. Only in recent months have I incorporated umbilical cords and pudgy arms and legs. I often include hints of sexual characteristics, but they are intentionally ambiguous: they are there if the viewer wants to see them.

I sincerely hope that in the context of my work, subtlety is an outgrowth of complexity, and that it is a strength and not a weakness. At the same time, I realize that it’s unfair to size my work up against anyone else’s because every artist has their own agenda. My work is not politically charged like Zhu Yu’s, but I can’t fool myself into thinking they don’t belong in the same broader category, since mine is also an impassioned critique of society played out in the infant body.

Shock value has a long history in art, so much so that the ridiculous term ‘shock art’ has emerged. (It’s ridiculous in my opinion, because the term will eventually seem anachronistic for each work so labeled as the shock wears off). Feminist art, the category of art that I most identify with, certainly has a history of using shock value and generally it has been in combination with the female body. Ask anyone who the key players are in feminist art and they will probably cite women who used shock value as a tool, like Judy Chicago or Carolee Schneemann. I’m left wondering, did the Second Wave feminist artists do the hard work, allowing their Third Wave counterparts to get away with coasting? Maybe artists of my generation have the luxury of being subtle because the framework and vocabulary for interpreting feminist art was already introduced before our time.

I don’t think that subtle work is any less memorable than so-called shock art. If anything, its complexities may reveal themselves over time. But to occupy someone’s mind as intensely as Zhu Yu has mine…well, that would be a great privilege.

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