The history of art is full of pieces which, at various points in time, have caused controversy, or sparked social disgust. The works most likely to provoke disgust are those that break taboos surrounding death, religion and sexual norms. Often, the debate around whether a piece is too ‘disgusting’ is interwoven with debate about whether that piece actually constitutes a work of art: people seem more willing to accept taboo-breaking pieces if they are within a clearly ‘artistic’ context (compare, for example, reactions to Michelangelo’s David with reactions to nudity elsewhere in society). As a consequence, the debate on the acceptability of shocking pieces has been tied up, at least in recent times, with the debate surrounding the acceptability of ‘conceptual art’ as art at all.
Conceptual art1 is that which places an idea or concept (rather than visual effect) at the centre of the work. Marchel Duchamp is ordinarily considered to have begun the march towards acceptance of conceptual art, with his most famous piece, Fountain, a urinal signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt”. It is popularly associated with the Turner Prize and the Young British Artists.
This debate has a degree of scope with regards to the extent of the restriction of artistic expression that might be being considered here. Possible restrictions include: limiting display of some pieces of art to private collections only; withdrawing public funding (e.g. Arts Council grants, in the UK) from artists considered to have produced unacceptable art; and, at the more extreme end, the complete censorship of some art. For the purposes of the debate below I will assume that in most sensible debates what will be discussed is one or both of the first two of those options (removal from public display and withdrawal of public funds).
There are a number of key examples of works of art that have caused public controversy and social disgust. Notable amongst these are works by the ‘Young British Artists (YBA)’2, whose ranks include Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin.
Damien Hirst: Amongst Hirst’s work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living3, (a 14-foot tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde), A Thousand Years4 (a rotting cow’s head, lying in blood, in a large glass cube, with an adjoining cube containing maggots and flies) and For the Love of God5 (a platinum cast of a human skull, covered in diamonds) are probably his most well-known. Both at the time of display and retrospectively, press responses to Hirst have been mixed: some, including Saatchi, (who famously displayed Hirst’s work at his gallery, and provided the funding for The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living), embraced Hirst’s bold approach, others6 accused him of cynically exploiting the press attention his ‘shock tactics’ gained him. Objections have also been levelled at him by those against the way in which animals are used in his work; from the horror of the rotting cow’s head to the death of butterflies in an exhibition (In and Out of Love7) in 1991 (recreated at the Tate retrospective in 2012).
Tracey Emin has also found herself at the centre of controversy, most famously with her piece, My Bed8, an unmade bed complete with empty bottles of alcohol, worn underwear, cigarette ends and condoms. Like Hirst, Emin was caught up in the interminable debate about the character of conceptual art, and whether the ideas she used were appropriate for the public sphere: her art has drawn attention to abortion, self-harm class, sexuality and alcoholism9.
Sarah Lucas10 has not gained as much recent media attention as her YBA contemporaries, but during the 90s and early 2000s shot to prominence with a series of provocative pieces exploring sexuality, sex and gender stereotyping. Whilst many admired her (Damien Hirst described her as "out there stripped to the mast like Turner in the storm, making excellent pieces over and over again"11), others considered her work shocking, or disgusting, with its frequent use of ordinary objects to represent human genitalia12.
Jake and Dinos Chapman most recently caught the eye of the media when participating in an exhibition with a number of other artists, “Adventure land Golf” (Grundy Art Gallery). Their contribution was a Hitler statue, whose arm would give a Hitler salute every time a ball passed through its legs. This caused a degree of consternation, and Michael Samuels, of The Board of Deputies of British Jews said, "I am appalled that the gallery would stoop to show an item like this which, in my opinion, has got absolutely no artistic value whatsoever”13. The Chapman brothers have also produced a number of other controversial works, most famously Hell, a sculpture showing many toy figures and Nazi soldiers in a gruesome scene. Hell drew the praise of some14, who saw it as a modern piece in a line of great artists depicting horror and the grotesque, but the condemnation of others.
Picasso produced Guernica15, arguably the most well-known of his works, and widely regarded as a modern masterpiece, as a swift reaction to the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica (during the Spanish Civil War). At the time of its first display, however, initial reactions to the painting ranged from disgust (including, famously, that of a German officer searching Picasso’s apartment, who, finding a copy of Guernica, says “did you do this?”, to which Picasso replied, “no, you did”), through to indifference and condemnation on ‘artistic grounds’. It was seen as being too close to the event for a non-realist interpretation to be politically effective, and therefore acceptable.
Jason Mecier16: This San Francisco-based artist, like the YBAs, uses ‘found objects’ in his art. He recently received a great deal of media attention when he included a mosaic of Whitney Houston made from pills in an exhibition shortly after her death. Whilst it is described by the artist as a “pill memorial”17, others found it tasteless.
1 Appleton, Josie, ‘Conceptual art’, spiked, 20 November 2003, http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/00000006DFD9.htm
2 Nicholson, Octavia, ‘Young British Artists’, Grove Art Online, 2009, http://www.moma.org/collection/theme.php?theme_id=10220
3 ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Physical_Impossibility_of_Death_in_the_Mind_of_Someone_Living
4 Searle, Adrian, ‘Damian Hirst – review’, guardian.co.uk, 2 April 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/apr/02/damien-hirst-tate-review
5 ‘For the Love of God’, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/For_the_Love_of_God
6 Sewell, Brian, ‘Damien Hirst, Tate Modern – Brian Sewell’s review’, London Evening Standard, 5 April 2012, http://www.standard.co.uk/arts/visual-arts/damien-hirst-tate-modern--brian-sewells-review-7618751.html
7 Barkham, Patrick, ‘Damien Hirst’s butterflies: distressing but weirdly uplifting’, guardian.co.uk, 18 April 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/apr/18/damien-hirst-butterflies-weirdly-uplifting
8 ‘Tracy Emin My Bed’, The Saatchi Gallery, http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/artists/artpages/tracey_emin_my_bed.htm
9 Dorment, Richard, ‘Tracy Emin: Love Is What You Want, Hayward Gallery, review’, The Telegraph, 16 May 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/8517013/Tracey-Emin-Love-Is-What-You-Want-Hayward-Gallery-review.html
10 ‘Sarah Lucas’, Grove Art Online, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/sarah-lucas-2643
11 Patterson, Christina, ‘Sarah Lucas: A Young British Artist grows up and speaks out’, The Independent, 21 July 2012, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/sarah-lucas-a-young-british-artist-grows-up-and-speaks-out-7959882.html
12 Levey, Kathryn, ‘Sarah Lucas – Still Shocking In Tate Liverpool Exhibition’, Culture24, 16 November 2005, http://www.culture24.org.uk/places+to+go/north+west/liverpool/art31844
13 ‘Adolf Hitler golf art in Blackpool ‘tasteless’’, BBC News, 14 August 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-19254556
14 Jones, Jonathan, ‘The Chapman brothers’ Hell is the best art of our age’, guardian.co.uk, 23 February 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2009/feb/23/chapman-hell-art
15 ‘Guernica, 1937 by Pablo Picasso’, Pablo Picasso, 2009, http://www.pablopicasso.org/guernica.jsp
16 ‘Jason Mecier’, Jasonmercier.com, http://www.jasonmecier.com/
17 Becknell, Vanessa, ‘Acclaimed Mosaic Artist Jason Mecier Sits Down to Talk Shop… (and the Whitneu Piece)’, Huffpost Arts & Culture, 7 March 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vanessa-becknell/acclaimed-mosaic-artist-j_b_1319704.html
Sometimes artists go too far in a bid to get their message across. Simply grabbing the headlines with shock tactics does not constitute art of the sort that should be receiving either public support or attention. It is important to recognise that public displays and funding of art are limited commodities, so every time one piece is chosen for an exhibition, or an artist is given money, this comes at the cost of other possible pieces of art. It is surely better to support those artists who have chosen to express their ideas and messages in a way that does not rely on simple attention-grabbing horror: it is surely more artistically meritorious to create a work that conveys its message in a way that rewards close attention and careful study, with layers of meaning and technique.
Who determines whether something is too disgusting? It is also hard to separate a piece of work’s artistic merit from its impact. It is perfectly possible for a work of art to display great technical competence, and yet fail to have an emotional impact on its audience, and so as a consequence it seems most sensible to allow, display and fund as wide a display of art as possible.
Limiting the forms of art that we display or give funding to those considered ‘artistically meritorious’ will result in the loss of innovation in the art world: if we only encourage those pieces that are ‘good’ under present-day metrics, we lose those pieces of art that, though considered controversial, or ‘not art’ now, may in the future be considered masterpieces (e.g. Picasso’s Guernica).
Those who see the artwork, or hear of it, must be considered. Often, social disgust stems from the violation of those values that are most central to an individual.
An individual’s right not to have their most central values abused or ridiculed is surely of more importance than the desire of an artist to be entirely unrestricted in their work: the harm caused to individuals by the continuing acceptance by society, (and consequent exposure) of art they find disgusting, can be great, and the reasonable modern society recognises such harms and does not impose them unnecessarily.
For example, the case of the Chapman brothers’ repeated use of Hitler and Nazi imagery: for the Chapmans the horror of WW2 might be distant and historical, and therefore for them the time may have come for Hitler to simply be mocked; however, for others that horror is altogether more current. Other people may feel a greater connection, for example, because of the impact on their close family, which cannot simply be ignored. In a situation like this, clearly the impact is infinitely more negative for that individual whose trauma is, in effect, being highlighted as now acceptable for comic material, than the positive gain is for the Chapmans: if restricted, they are simply caused to move on to other subjects.
Whilst it is the case in individual instances that, if one piece of art is censored, another on a different topic may be produced, when looked at in a wider context this is not the case. If we restrict artists in all cases where someone is disgusted, an enormous quantity of subjects will be off limits. This will have, not only a negative impact on that artist, but a deleterious effect on whole branches of art.
Further, restricting any art that could cause social disgust is an unreasonable restriction to place upon society (or gallery curators, or grant allocation committees). It is difficult to know at what point a piece will cross the line from simply ‘provocative’ to ‘disgusting’. Consequently, people will be forced to err on the side of caution, leading to an excessive caution and restriction: overcensorship.
When weighed against these harms, it is far from clear that individual disgust can be elevated to this extent!
Art differs from other forms of media with regard to the expression of ideas. Unlike other methods of conveying ideas, art has a visceral impact that is instant and has a lasting effect.
In a discussion, for example, there are often clues that ideas that might make people feel uncomfortable are about to arise. Thus, people are in a better position to consent to the sorts of challenges controversy within a conversation may pose (similarly, we tend to look more positively on taboo subjects raised within a conversational context than we do when they are, for example, shouted about in the street).
In the case of art, particularly that which is displayed in public spaces (like squares, parks and museums) people are unable to consent in this way, but rather, may be confronted suddenly by something that they find disgusting, because it has forced them to confront something they find horrific or traumatic, in a manner which has a great impact, and that, because of the power of the visual, they find difficult to forget.
We are no less able to consent to art than we are to every other manifestation of individuality in society. We are similarly unable to consent to, but strongly impacted by, all sorts of things, from music videos and adverts to people dressed strangely on the street.
However, as a society we accept that people’s core values ought to be robust enough to survive challenges in the public sphere: we allow debate, art and music on many topics that have enormous personal ramifications, from euthanasia to deportation.
As a consequence, it is only legitimate to restrict the worst excesses, whose impact can be measured objectively, before display: we set rules in this regard restricting the worst instances of, for example, exploitation and pornography.
Further, those who are worst affected can self-limit their exposure: it is rare that people are entirely unaware of the existence of a controversial piece of art, and as such people can choose not to view it, or to view it only briefly. They should not have the right to prevent everyone else from seeing such a piece.
Some forms of art rely strongly on the provocation of disgust or other strong reactions. For example, conceptual artists often rely heavily upon the provocation of strong emotions in the viewer as a way of drawing attention to important, taboo areas (e.g. death, religion and sexuality). If they are banned from doing this, then we lose an entire branch of art: we are left instead with forms of art that choose not to engage with these areas at all.
Particularly in cases where people want to draw attention to what they see as unnecessary taboos, shock is integral. For example, the work of Sarah Lucas explored taboos surrounding sexuality and gender: her work drew attention to stereotyping and taboo in a way that (necessarily) many people found disgusting. Further, it is possible to critically engage with that disgust. It is wrong to assume that the end point of a provocative piece of art is “oh, I’ve been provoked”. Rather, this emotional first response is only the beginning when it comes to the contemplation of that work. Thinking about the reasons for your disgust, and its context, allows us a greater insight into the work, which if you believe ideas are central to pieces of art (which conceptual artists do) is vital.
First, it seems implausible that there are ideas that can only be conveyed by instant, emotional responses. It must surely be possible to convey these ideas in other ways.
Second, it is unclear why it is so important that these reactions are provoked: surely if something is incredibly shocking it is that way for a reason? Something cannot provoke social disgust without taking a clear stride over the line of what we consider to be acceptable in society.
The taboos that exist in society are not meaningless: rather, they express inviolable values that are present throughout time, and in many different societies.
Artists ought to be allowed to express themselves, and display the world they see, as they see it.
Freedom of speech is considered integral to the modern democracy, and with good reason! Free speech makes a vital contribution to a plurality of ideas. It is only when a great number of ideas are expressed and challenged, such that people’s beliefs remain fluid, and can be formed and reformed, that we are able to arrive at such a point where we are likely to progress. This ‘marketplace of ideas’ prevents us from stagnating; from continuing harmful practices and modes of thought simply because they are traditional.
The more free speech is limited, the less able we are to access this plurality of ideas, and thus the less able we are to truly challenge harmful habits.
Freedom of speech is evidently not an absolute right: it is not something that we consider to be inviolable and able to ‘trump’ all other rights. Note, for instance, that many countries have restrictions on freedom of speech preventing hate speech and other transgressions.
We can, therefore, limit freedom of speech in instances where the benefits outweigh the harm: the benefit in this instance being the prevention of harm to individuals as a result of the art.
Great, socially liberal movements have always been controversial, and always been supported, encouraged and propagated by art. Art is a realm wherein an artist’s expression is less limited by social structures (like the necessity of pleasing your box; of being ‘commercially viable’). Subsequently it has easily, and often, been utilised as a means of changing public opinion.
Some of these movements, for example, the breaking down of stereotypes and norms surrounding sexuality (in particular female sexuality) and gender that Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and others contributed to in the liberalising 80s and 90s, attract social disgust. In any situation where a taboo is being attacked, this will happen. The converse however, is not the case: it is almost impossible to provoke social disgust by maintaining the status quo.
As a result, restriction of art that provokes social disgust will disproportionately attack the socially liberal, and thus help to maintain the status quo, regardless of whether it is worthy of such protection.
Social change does not come from pieces of art. It comes from real, concrete political action and struggles, over time. It is unclear, therefore, why it should not be the case that we ought first to campaign for changes to society, and then display (newly) acceptable art reflecting upon the changes we have made. To do otherwise is to suggest that artists should be allowed special dispensation to run ‘ahead’ of the norms the rest of us feel bound by: note that it is not always the case that disgusting art later becomes acceptable. Not all transgressions are for the sake of future changes to society; some simply remain transgressions.