Shock and violence in contemporary art | UNKNOWN AUTHOR



"And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of perverseness... I am...sure that perverseness of the indivisible faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man." Edgar Alan Poe, The Black Cat, 1839


In 1839, Poe vividly described the imaginary torture of a cat and the reason that led him to it: the intrinsic human inclination to sadism and barbarism. In 2007, the Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas Habacuc will visualize this inclination with his work "Eres lo que lees" (You are what you read). The work consists of an emaciated, half-dead dog, tethered by the artist to a wall of an art gallery. The irony lies in the fact that, while the dog is deprived of food and water, it is placed under the title (you are what you read), which the artist has made out of dog food on the wall. At the same time, the Sandinista anthem sounds from the speakers while the whole room smells of burnt cocaine, creating a suffocating atmosphere. Images of the animal, travel the world through the internet and bring about the rage of art lovers and non-art-lovers, animal lovers, journalists and simple cyberspace visitors. The artist, who, according to his own words, wanted to make a statement on peoples' hypocrisy, will be accused of starving the dog to death and the internet will be filled with threatening messages. The artist himself neither admits nor denies anything and the whole event has already attained an international urban legend status.

In a work entitled "you are what you read" and, consequently, you are what you believe, the truth is difficult to unveil. Notwithstanding, aside from the information dissemination process and the attempt, through every means, to advertise the artist, the main issue remains: violence and shock; both psychological and visual.

Making a brief retrospection in history of art, one would discover that almost always, artists were particularly attracted by violence. Many of the martyrs of Christianity gave painters the opportunity to express said attraction. The decapitation of Saint John the Baptist, Saint Sebastian, Judith... In an effort to terrify the faithful and make them renounce earthly pleasures, scenes from hell and the Second Coming take, in the hands of artists, their most nightmarish form to constantly remind the faithful the tortures that have been reserved for the sinful. In Baroque art, violence will be presented in greater proportions. Caravaggio's revengeful Judith beheads Holofernes in such violence and intenseness, that the artist's canvas brings to mind scenes from modern horror films. In the 18th century, the last works of Goya, through endless hair-raising scenes of beheadings and tortures, render the terror of that era, question its ethics and reject the hopes of the Enlightenment for progress and human improvement1. The attractive power of violence will cross the centuries and, in the 20th century, it will be transformed into a point of view. Vanguard artists will promote it as a necessary element of an art wishing to break the fetters of academic principles2, strongly professing that art is not the beautiful and the aesthetically pretty. «[We will] elevate all attempts at originality, however daring, however violent...Make room for youth, for violence, for daring...Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice", declared the Futurists in their 1910 Founding Manifesto.

The majority of artists in the 21st century adopted this idea and led it to the extremes. If someone could track down a common element among these artists, that would be their need to provoke the feeling of fear and shock to their audience. Let’s not forget that we live in an era in which everything seems to be predestined to terrify us: from the continuous anti-smoking campaigns, which communicate the fear of cancer, till the strain for the love partner because of AIDS, and even the need for a new and luxurious car that is created by the fear of social rejection. And provided that every era creates its own art, our era will “force” the artists to incorporate a big share of horror in their artistic creation.

Performance art became the most volatile field, in which artists, using even the most radical forms of violence, would raise points having to do with politics, society and racial issues. So long as someone brings in mind how Marina Abramovic stabs her body up to bleeding. This inborn inclination to savagery, wouldn’t exclude the animals, which were sacrificed at the altar of art many times. And if the image of Vargas’ dog gives rise to our anger, making a brief retrospection in the past, the examples would appear numerous. In 1970, during the inauguration of a new exhibition space in Brazil, the artist Cildo Meireles presented his work Tiradentes: totem-monument to the political prisoner3. Making a plain reference to the Brazilian martyr of independence, named Tiradentes, Meireles tied hens to a post and then set them alight, burning them alive in front of a shocked audience. This work can be interpreted as a powerful statement about the violence in Brazil under the dictatorship and will symbolize the tortures, the incarceration and the oppression. And maybe at that time, in that country, this was the most effective way to make that symbolism.

This review has no intention of expanding in aesthetic and general “meaning of art” issues. It is actually more than self-evident that nothing can be taken for granted, as far as modern art is concerned. And neither can modern art field, modern art‘s affinity to the whole, or nevertheless modern art’s raison d’être4. Vasilis Raphaelides had once said that there is no borderline between art and non-art5. And modern art keeps corroborating this statement. By art-full or art-less works, contemporary artists won’t miss their chance going beyond the moral and the accepted and toss their anger towards the audience, literally or not6.

So what’s the audience’s reaction to this extensive amount of violence and shock? Is the audience repelled or attracted? Are these violent and shocking artworks part of the Society of the Spectacle7, in which contemporary humans have put all their trust?

By his activities, man has developed the rational world, but it will always remain inside of him, a vestige of violence. People used to love the barbarian shows since the era of roman arena8 and contained with this natural inclination towards horror, always rushed to watch anything that included blood and violence. Which one of us can claim that he hasn’t speed down to see a car crash closely or hasn’t eavesdropped on the neighbors, when they yell or cry? Violence and death that is connoted have a twofold meaning: on one hand, horror repels us and on the other hand it appeals to us, a horrifying and simultaneously a festive aspect9. People in the show business have, quite early, deciphered the numerous functions of violence and so are capable of training the audience into accepting violence and dealing with the shock that violence provokes.

«Among all the fashionable words nowadays, violence is the most abroach…everyone is talking about it, but no one thinks through it10», the historian Eric Hobsbawm stated in the late ‘60s. Today, things seem a little bit different. Noone really talks about violence, as it has been strongly rooted to our society for good and is an inextricable feature of our everyday life. Pictures from the war in Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s execution by hanging, the victims of the recent big earthquake in China. Everything invades easily in our living room. Television generously gives us every day at least five minutes of raw violence, dressed up as news or as entertainment.

And the question that rises here is why art had to go all the way using the same communication codes, which television uses? Is it just a manifestation of contemporary’s society clinical condition?

Maybe this “barbaric” trend of artists can be explained and partly justified by the words of Herbert Marcuse: «Only if we exclude brutality, fanaticism and violence, will we be able to define culture as a process of humanization. These forces can, nevertheless, be a part of culture, so that the approach to or the accomplishment of culture’s aims, become true through the exercise of brutality and violence11». So is it just that the artists attempt to awaken us by the only way that has a guaranteed effect?

But there’s always the other side of the coin. Truly, it is comfortably easy for an artist to make atonement for himself by putting his creation under the umbrella of “political” or “social” art. But it is likewise easy to get trapped inside terms and gimmicks, commanded by the same industries of spectacle, against which the artist (claims that he) fights. Contemporary artist tries furiously to be accepted by museum curators and gallery owners, so that he can see his name in exhibition catalogs and newspaper articles. That’s how the system works. Nowadays everyone has to bow in front of those in charge, those who pull the strings. And shock, as a medium and as an effect, evokes attention. We live in times when culture is imprinted on everything in uniformity and it seems that even the aesthetic manifestations of the politically opposed, all they do is praise at the same way the steely rhythm . If the contemporary artist uses media that praise this rhythm12, in order to get acknowledged, then how will the audience distinguish him from the Fear Factor player, who eats cockroaches and jumps off buildings in order to get the money and the 15 minutes of publicity and glory? When the society of spectacle renders the culture, and thereupon art, as the “diva commodity13”, the boundaries are fairly intangible.

The sense of violence is evident in every form of art, either commenting political and social functions, or for reasons of advertisement and marketing. Blameworthy for some of us, requisite for others. No matter how somebody affronts it, the violence is definitely a symptom of a humanity, which instead of entering a really human condition, it sinks into a new kind of barbarity , into which we, all, are participants and sublime spectators.


1 Freeland Cynthia, But is this art?, translated into Greek by Mandy Almpani, Plethron editions, 2005, p. 31.

2 Howlett j., Mengham R., The violent muse: violence and artistic imagination in Europe, 1910-1939, Manchester University Press, 1994, p. 77.

3 Paulo Herkenhoff, Gerardo Mosquera, Dan Cameron, Contemporary artists. Cildo Meireles, Phaidon editions, 1999.

4 Adorno Th., Aesthetic theory, translated into Greek by Anagnostou Lefteris, Alexandria editions, 2000.

5 Vassilis Raphaelides, Elementary Aesthetics, editions of the Twenty First, 1992, p. 110.

6 Rose Lee Goldberg, Foreword by Laurie Anderson, Performance. Live art since the 60’s, T& H, 1998, σελ.14.

7 Guy Debord, The society of the spectacle, translated into Greek by Sylvia, International Library editions, 2000.

8 Umberto Eco, On the history of ugliness, translated into Greek by Dimitra Dotsi- Anteos Chrisostomidis, Kastaniotis editions, 2007, p.220.

9 Bataille Georges, Eroticism, Papagiorgis Kostis, Indictos editions, 2001, p. 64.

10 Hobsbawm Eric, Uncommon People. Resistance, rebellion and jazz, translated into Greek by Paraskevas Matalas, Themelio editions, 2001, p. 304.

11 Adorno, Lowenthal, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Art and popular culture, translated into Greek by Sarikas Zisis, Ipsilon editions, 1984, p.27.

12 Adorno Th., Horkheimer M., Dialectics of the Enlightenment, translated into Greek by Anagnostou Lefteris, Nisos editions, 1996, p. 201.

13 Guy Debord, The society of the spectacle, translated into Greek by Sylvia, International Library editions, 2000, p. 151.

14 Adorno Th., Horkheimer M., Dialectics of the Enlightenment, translated into Greek by Anagnostou Lefteris, Nisos editions, 1996, p. 19.